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Pinellas commission to vote on transit referendum as opponents go to court

For years, Pinellas County's transit groups have discussed and planned an overhaul of the area's transportation system, without putting it before voters. But today, the commission is expected to pass a measure signaling its intent to put transit on the ballot in 2014.

The proposed referendum question would ask Pinellas residents to approve a sales tax increase of up to 1 percent. Raising the tax from 7 cents per dollar to 8 cents is projected to bring in about $128 million, paying for a dramatic redesign of the county's transportation system, including more bus routes and light rail.

Pinellas transit officials have warned that without the additional revenue, they will have to make deep cuts to bus service.

With the vote approaching, and a majority of commissioners publicly supporting it, a group of Pinellas residents is trying to apply the brakes.

On Friday, seven residents, including Barbara Haselden, a vocal opponent of light rail, filed for an injunction to prevent four of the seven commissioners from voting. The four — Ken Welch, Karen Seel, Susan Latvala and John Morroni — are being sued by a different group of residents who claim the commissioners have exceeded the term limits voters set in 1996.

The same lawyer, John Shahan, is representing both sets of plaintiffs, some of whom are members of the South Pinellas 9-12 group, which is affiliated with the tea party movement. Shahan declined to comment.

In seeking an injunction, the group is claiming the four commissioners are "not legally in office and therefore cannot legally vote on any issue before being removed from office voluntarily or by court order."

County Attorney Jim Bennett said the earliest date that Shahan has asked to schedule a hearing is in late March, making it unlikely the matter will be decided before the vote this afternoon.

The commission's vote is not the final word on whether the referendum will appear on the Nov. 4, 2014, ballot. Commissioners still must approve ballot language and pass an ordinance, all of which can be done as late as August 2014.

Supporters of the Pinellas transit agency's nascent plans to build light rail and expand bus service said they will show up today to defend the proposal.

"Most people do want this to move forward," said Phil Compton, a regional representative for the Suncoast Sierra Club.

"The key point is not to dither over the details today or tomorrow, but really, let's just move forward and decide that we're going to do something," he said.

Opponents of the proposal say it is sketchy, at best. Transit officials say they have a plan, but one that is not set in stone and can still be molded in response to public opinion.

They propose to build 24 miles of track from downtown Clearwater to the Gateway area, then south again to St. Petersburg and Tropicana Field. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has also commissioned a study of the bus system, which has seen ridership climb for two years amid increasing expenses and reductions in service.

Seel has said that while she wants to improve the county's public transportation system, she opposes putting the question to voters in 2014. By then, she has said, the economy is unlikely to have rebounded to the point where residents would vote to increase the sales tax.

The other commissioner likely to vote against the resolution is Norm Roche, who has said that he believes that transit officials' cost estimates for the project are unrealistic.

Morroni, who appeared anxious about the referendum's timing at a meeting this month, said he favors putting it to voters in 2014.

"This isn't whether you're for the referendum or not, it's just to put it on the ballot," he said, adding, "I guess we an always undo it."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas commission to vote on transit referendum as opponents go to court 02/25/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 10:47am]
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