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Pinellas commission facing questions about transit referendum

As the day nears when Pinellas County commissioners will begin debating ballot language for the 2014 transit referendum, county officials have begun to fret over what-if scenarios and questions still left to be answered.

Should the county ask voters to approve a full 1-cent tax increase? Or a partial cent? And when exactly would that tax, if approved, kick in?

Though the county's transit authority has taken the lead in introducing the public to the concept of upping the sales tax to pay for light rail and enhanced bus service, many of the major decisions that will shape the referendum fall to commissioners.

Some of the questions still unanswered are "deceptively simply," said County Administrator Bob LaSala. But in actuality, deciding when the tax should expire and what the money collected should go toward is going to be complex. The proposed transit expansion is already a controversial subject in Pinellas and has been since Hillsborough voters defeated a similar referendum in 2010. Whatever language is printed on the 2014 ballots will have to hold up under heavy scrutiny.

The county's first priority: not getting sued.

"First, we need to make sure that we make decisions that shore up the legal viability of anything that is placed on the ballot," said County Attorney Jim Bennett.

County and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority officials will also have to hammer out an agreement, LaSala said, laying out how much control the county will have over the project, if any, and what would happen if the operational costs exceeded revenues from the tax, among other theoretical scenarios.

The commission is scheduled to discuss the ballot language in greater depth at a workshop on Tuesday, with a goal of approving the referendum wording on Dec. 3.

"We know when, how much, how long and the uses," said Commissioner Ken Welch. "We've talked about that ad nauseam. And so now the ballot language is the only thing out there."

Pinellas commission facing questions about transit referendum 10/22/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 8:40pm]
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