Friday, September 21, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas' nearly $400,000 transit tax campaign focused on educating insiders, not voters

By now, Brad Miller has likely driven thousands of miles crisscrossing Pinellas County to deliver his presentation about buses and trains.

The CEO of Pinellas' transit agency has addressed Rotary clubs and chambers of commerce, neighborhood associations and school groups. He can practically recite his speech from memory. All of this work has been in hopes that come Nov. 4, residents will support a referendum to increase the county's sales tax from seven to eight cents, raising roughly $130 million a year to pay for an expanded bus system and light rail.

"I constantly worry that even though I personally have given 100-and-some presentations, there's just no way, it's impossible to reach as many people as we need to," Miller said recently.

His efforts are part of Greenlight Pinellas, the $400,000 publicly funded education campaign that launched last year and is now winding down. Led by the Tampa-based public relations firm Tucker Hall, the campaign's objectives were to inform residents about the referendum and solicit public input. It brought together groups of business, civic and government leaders and has been widely praised by referendum supporters.

But unlike other education campaigns, Greenlight spent little money to spread its message. With no TV or radio commercials, billboard ads or flashy mailers, the campaign was nearly invisible to ordinary voters.

There were several reasons for this, according to Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority spokesman Bob Lasher, and one was money — the agency's marketing budget doesn't have much of it.

Although PSTA ultimately paid Tucker Hall $400,000 to develop the Greenlight plan, most of that money came from a federal grant and, invoices show, it was quickly spent on planning meetings, research and the campaign's website. PSTA's contract with the firm did not include advertising buys.

The agency also was nervous about overstepping its bounds and getting smacked with a lawsuit. Florida law allows public money to be spent to educate voters on a referendum, but not to sway them.

"We're being very very careful," Lasher said. "You need the exposure, but we're playing it a little safe as far as spending."

In total, PSTA spent $23,800 to advertise the campaign.

The agency bought ads on Bay News 9's website and in newspapers, including this one ($3,000). It purchased $6,750 in advertising on saintpetersblog.com, a local website read by political insiders and covered 10 of its buses in Greenlight ads. It spent $700 to increase the number of "likes" it had on Facebook.

Mike Zuhl, the government and public affairs director at R&R Partners, has worked on both education and advocacy campaigns of several transit initiatives, including the referendum in Charlotte. Almost all of them used paid advertising to reach voters, he said.

"It doesn't always have to be just TV and radio, it can be outdoor advertising and mail, but there should be some public visible component of it," he said. "You want to convey the value of the expanded transit and what the benefits of it would be."

While acknowledging that many people are confused or uninformed about the transit proposals, the referendum's supporters argue that the campaign succeeded in reaching a core group of influential people.

Suggestions from elected officials in north Pinellas led PSTA to add a bus route on McMullen-Booth Road to its plans. Questions from business leaders prompted the agency to hire a consultant to review its financial plans. Each of three committees endorsed the transit proposal, paving the way for the County Commission's vote to place the referendum on the ballot.

"We educated a lot of public officials, a lot of business folks, a lot of civic and neighborhood folks," said Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch. "It very strategically educated the folks who needed to be. It set up a nucleus."

Supporters do have an edge among voters, if a fragile one. A poll conducted in December and sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay, found that 55 percent of respondents in Pinellas would support a sales tax increase for expanded bus service and passenger rail; 36 percent said they would oppose it; and 9 percent were unsure.

Boosters of the referendum, led by Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, have begun work on a privately funded advocacy campaign to sell the public on the transit tax. In an interview, Duncan said the group has been raising money for the last six months, but declined to disclose how much or when the campaign will make its debut. It will continue to work with Tucker Hall to shape its message, he said.

"We have an awful lot of work to do," Duncan said. "There's still a lot of people that don't really understand or don't know anything about the plan."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

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