ST. PETERSBURG — The Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum got much of the microphone time when Pinellas County Commission candidates stepped into the Tigers' Den on Thursday.
The six hopefuls running for two seats on the commission took questions from Suncoast Tiger Bay political club members on a variety of subjects at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. But talk of the transit tax dominated the about-40-minute session and highlighted the division among the candidates.
In the District 2 countywide seat, Republican state Rep. Ed Hooper faces Democrat Pat Gerard, the mayor of Largo.
In District 4, a north county seat left vacant by the retiring Susan Latvala, Republican Dave Eggers is on the ballot with Democrat Mark Weinkrantz and two no-party candidates, Carl Folkman and Marcus Harrison.
State Senate candidate Judithanne McLauchlan, the Democrat challenging Republican incumbent Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg in District 22, also attended — Brandes did not.
The first Greenlight questioner sought a simple "yay or nay" from the candidates. Gerard, Eggers, Weinkrantz and McLauchlan said they support the transit referendum that would increase the county's sales tax by a penny if approved by voters Nov. 4. The about $130 million in revenue would be used to expand bus service and build a 24-mile light rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater.
Hooper, Harrison and Folkman said they do not support the transit tax.
"How would you propose that single moms with kids get to work and get to child care without a car?" a woman asked those candidates a few moments later.
All four said they support improving the bus system but don't want to have the highest sales tax in the state.
"I would ask you," Hooper told the woman, "to think about how are we going to help those same mothers when they have to pay additional sales tax on everything that they purchase except food, rent and medicine?"
Harrison faulted the plan for tying bus improvements to light rail.
"We don't need the fixed rail component," he said. "That is a very expensive proposition that is not going to help transportation very much."
County Commissioner Ken Welch, who chairs the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board, asked the next question. Noting that the transit authority's property tax levy (which would be eliminated if Greenlight passes) is nearly at its cap, Welch asked the Greenlight naysayers how they propose to improve transportation and how they would pay for it.
Perhaps a smaller sales tax increase to fund only bus improvements, Harrison said. Hooper suggested asking voters for permission to use a portion of Penny for Pinellas funds, which can be used only for infrastructure. Folkman suggested there is money to be found in PSTA's current budget to make improvements.
The Greenlight supporters didn't get the chance to explain their position. All four have said the Greenlight plan is a viable way to provide transit options and spur redevelopment along the light-rail line.
Before Greenlight came up, staunch red-light camera opponent Matt Florell of St. Petersburg wanted to know whether Hooper, who has accepted campaign contributions from red-light camera companies, would "push to put the cameras on county roads" if he is elected.
Hooper said he supports the cameras because they save lives, not because they raise revenue. However, he said, if "the majority chooses 'no,' I'm very fine with that."
The other candidates also said they wouldn't push for the cameras, though Eggers, Folkman, Harrison and Weinkrantz said they would not rule out supporting them in some justified cases.
Weinkrantz, an East Lake fire commissioner, said he supported a resolution seeking red-light cameras on East Lake Road.
"There are wrecks all the time, and there are deaths at every one of our traffic lights," he said. "The numbers bear out that red-light cameras do modify behavior."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.