Up until now, Pinellas County's public education campaign to tell voters about the upcoming transit referendum has been geared toward the county's business and government elite. That could soon change.
Board members of Pinellas' transit agency are poised to approve thousands more in funding for the campaign, more than doubling its current marketing budget of $150,000. The additional money is part of an effort to reach ordinary voters who may have never heard of the referendum, known as Greenlight Pinellas, or seen a map of the county's proposed transit overhaul. The referendum, which will go before voters on Nov. 4, calls for increasing the county's sales tax from 7 to 8 cents, raising roughly $130 million a year to pay for an expanded bus system and light rail.
"The board feels an obligation — and does have an obligation — to increase the outreach effort we're doing," said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority chief executive officer Brad Miller.
PSTA officials will ask the agency's board today to add upward of $250,000 to the public campaign's coffers, money that will pay for marketing materials like brochures, maps of the proposed bus and light rail routes, and a revamped website.
The agency also plans to hire a consultant to oversee an outreach effort that could include direct mail, phone banks, and advertising in newspapers and on the sides of public buses.
While state law prevents PSTA, a publicly funded agency, from taking a position on the referendum, it is allowed to distribute informational material.
"It won't be a campaign with a 'vote yes' at the end, but it will say very clearly what Greenlight is," said PSTA board chairman and Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch. Telling the public about Greenlight, he added, is no different from past efforts to disseminate information about the Penny for Pinellas infrastructure tax.
Referendum opponents think otherwise.
PSTA is overstepping its legal bounds, said Barbara Haselden, who founded the group No Tax for Tracks. She has long criticized the agency for what she sees as an advocacy campaign disguised as informational outreach.
"PSTA is using our money out of their budget to continue to advocate to the public to raise the sales tax," she said.
No Tax for Tracks recently proposed spending $15,000 to wrap five PSTA buses in ads against the referendum, but agency officials turned them down.
According to Miller, PSTA's advertising policy only allows for ads marketing products, services, and the agency's own educational information. This last category includes the bright-green ads the agency has wrapped around a handful of its buses, promoting the Greenlight Pinellas website.
Most of the agency's outreach will take place this spring, Miller said, and will ultimately be eclipsed by the private advocacy campaign, called Yes for Greenlight, which is still organizing.
To date, PSTA has spent more than $400,000 on the public campaign. To bulk up its marketing budget, the agency has pulled from savings in fuel purchasing and operations, Miller said.