The Pinellas County Commission will vote Feb. 26 on whether to place a sales tax increase for major transit changes on the ballot in November 2014.
Though the election is 21 months away, Pinellas County's transit agency asked the commission to save a spot for the sales tax hike on the ballot, setting a deadline by which it must sell the plan to the public. A majority of commissioners have said they will approve placing the question on the ballot.
Though the board agreed to vote on a resolution approving the budget timing, the final ballot language doesn't have to be finalized until early August.
"All you're doing is setting a deadline," said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority chairman Jeff Danner, a St. Petersburg council member. "If, for whatever reason, the plan isn't fully vetted, and we haven't gotten to the public enough, we'll be the first ones coming to you to ask for a delay."
Though six of the seven board members supported moving forward with the Feb. 26 vote, a few worried that 2014 is too soon.
"I don't believe that the timing to put it on a November of 2014 ballot is appropriate," said Commissioner Karen Seel, adding the public might be more receptive to a tax in 2015 when the economy likely will be better.
Commissioner Norm Roche, who sits on PSTA's board, approved asking the commission to put it on the ballot in 2014. But at the commission's Tuesday morning, he was the only opposition to the February vote.
"I don't think we're ready for this," he said. "I don't think we should move forward on a $100 million ask when we have not even seen how it would be spent."
Roche explained his differing positions by saying his roles on the two boards were distinct.
Increasing Pinellas County's sales tax from seven to eight cents — the proposal most often discussed by the PSTA board — would raise about $120 million a year. One proposal would have it replacing the property tax that currently brings in $32 million in transit funding a year.
An early analysis commissioned by PSTA shows that the money would go to building a commuter light rail system in Pinellas. The current draft of the route includes 24 miles of track stretching from downtown Clearwater to the Gateway area, then south to St. Petersburg.
The transit agency would also use the tax money to overhaul its bus system, which is experiencing an influx of riders but can't afford a significant expansion.
Agency officials have said that long before they ask residents to approve a sales tax increase, the plan will become much more detailed. PSTA has hired Tampa public relations firm TuckerHall to oversee the plan's introduction to the public.
"There is a plan, Commissioner Roche, and you've seen it several times since being on the board of the PSTA," said Commissioner Susan Latvala. "PSTA has spent a lot of money and before spending any more they want to know that at least a majority of the county commission will move this forward."
Commissioner John Morroni said he would support creating a placeholder on the 2014 ballot, but he too had reservations. He's not intimately familiar with the transportation analysis, he said, and he has yet to meet with PSTA's director. He doubts, he said, that the public understands "what this is all about."
"This thing is going to go down the tubes if you put it on the ballot too early," he warned.