CLEARWATER — An outside antitax group led by a controversial Central Florida consultant and activist is gunning to derail the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum.
Ax the Tax, a political committee formed in 1982 by Doug Guetzloe of Orlando, made its first foray into the debate with a telephone poll this week that Guetzloe says shows overwhelming opposition to what he calls the "light rail tax."
Guetzloe, 60, said his group will soon launch a campaign centered on direct mail pieces, phone calls and social media.
"The more people know, the less likely they are to support it," he said.
If approved on Nov. 4, the plan would increase the county's sales tax by one cent to expand bus service and build a 24-mile light rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Guetzloe's poll, conducted by local firm St. Pete Polls, did not include the words "Greenlight Pinellas" and made no mention of the bus component of the plan.
Nearly 66 percent of 764 people who took the automated survey said they were less likely to support the "light rail program" at the end of the six-question poll; 28 percent said they would be more likely to support it. The margin of error was 3.5 percent.
Those numbers are a stark contrast to a poll the Friends of Greenlight political committee conducted in June. That survey, which had a margin of error of 4.9 percent, showed 59 percent of likely voters supporting the plan. The referendum needs a simple majority to pass.
Greenlight proponents dismissed Guetzloe's poll as an inaccurate result of biased questions.
"This poll gives me absolutely no heartburn at all," said Joe Farrell, manager of the Yes on Greenlight campaign.
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Guetzloe was born in Tampa, raised in Clearwater and has two siblings who live in Pinellas. He co-founded the Florida TEA Party in 2009.
By his count, Ax the Tax has fought 17 initiatives in Florida and other states, about a dozen of them for transit rail projects — and lost only one. He said his group spent about $35,000 to fight the Hillsborough County transit referendum. Most of that, he said, was his own money.
His ties to Pinellas make the fight against Greenlight special. "It's definitely more personal."
Guetzloe's group hasn't filed a campaign finance report with the state Division of Elections this year and previous reports show Ax the Tax has no cash on hand. In September, the division referred his group to the Florida Elections Commission for failing to file campaign reports in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Guetzloe said he plans to file waivers because the group did not raise or spend money in those periods.
He said a political consulting company paid for this week's poll and he will log it as a loan or in-kind donation.
Guetzloe has made plenty of headlines over the years.
He was indicted by an Orange County grand jury in 2007, accused of lying under oath about who paid for some controversial mailers and advertisements in Daytona Beach City Commission races. Prosecutors dropped the perjury charge after a key witness died. Guetzloe called the charge "bogus."
He was convicted in 2010 on a misdemeanor charge of sending a political mailer that did not include the required disclaimer identifying it as a paid electioneering communication. An appellate court called the anonymous mailers about a Winter Park mayoral candidate a "quintessential smear campaign." Guetzloe later admitted he used about $15,000 of his own money for the mailings. He served about 40 days of a 60-day jail sentence but points out that the statute he violated was found unconstitutional and has since been changed.
In 2012, Guetzloe was found guilty on misdemeanor charges of failing to file federal income tax returns and served about a year in a minimum security prison camp. He acknowledges the returns were late but said he paid the taxes in advance.
Guetzloe said his history is "interesting" but shouldn't distract voters.
He is working independently of No Tax for Tracks, the Pinellas-based political committee fighting the Greenlight plan. Campaign manager Barb Haselden said her group will not join forces but is happy to have an ally.
Haselden found Guetzloe's survey to be fair. "The questions rang very true to me," she said.
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The first question asked how the respondent would vote today on the referendum "to increase your sales tax to pay for the proposed light rail program." (55 percent said no, nearly 35 percent said yes.)
Another question: "If you were aware that the light rail plan would cost your household over $4,000 would you be more or less likely to vote for the rail tax?" (76 percent said less likely.)
Guetzloe said his group came up with the $4,000 figure by dividing the light rail component's $1.7 billion construction costs by the county's 400,000 households.
That calculation is flawed because the sales tax will pay only a portion of the cost, said Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority chief executive officer Brad Miller. The rest will be covered by federal grants, state funds and fares. The figure also fails to account for the elimination of the current property tax that funds PSTA, Miller said.
"Sure, in theory someone could pay $4,000, if they paid every year for 140 years," Miller said. "It's just crazy math."
Guetzloe stands by the number. He contends light rail does not provide enough service for the investment.
"If it's a dime more per family, it's not worth it," he said.
Another question noted that if passed, the county's 8 percent sales tax would be the "highest of any county in the state," which is true.
Asked why the poll didn't mention the 65 percent increase in bus service, Guetzloe called it "irrelevant to the vote."
"The only people who ride buses are the people who need to ride the buses," he said, "and they don't constitute anything close to a majority of the population."