Pinellas transit panel wary of tax requests

CLEARWATER — A task force charged with looking at Pinellas County's public transit future endorsed a regional sales tax and raising the county's gas tax to pay for light rail and bus upgrades Monday.

But some group members acknowledged that this is a dicey time to ask voters to approve higher taxes.

The 1-cent sales tax increase and adding 5 cents for each gallon of gas together could raise up to $135 million a year. They would help pay for $4.5 billion to build and run trains and operate more buses over 25 years.

The 25-member panel didn't discuss a date to go to the polls, a sign of how much Hillsborough County voters' rejection of a sales tax for rail has set back Pinellas advocates. "I don't think we can decide that now," said member Craig Sher, executive chairman of the Sembler Co. "With Hillsborough losing that referendum, we've got to regroup on the political side."

Before Hillsborough voted down the proposal Nov. 2, Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, the task force chairwoman, had planned to seek a recommendation on a date and tax sources at Monday's meeting. Some members suggested a 2011 vote was possible, if not 2012.

The panel will now take up that question and polish its recommendations on funding into formal findings at a December meeting.

Working in small groups over 3 ½ hours Monday, members endorsed giving the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority oversight of a 1-cent sales tax in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties — a power the agency lacks now. The sales tax is key because estimates show it would produce $120 million a year in Pinellas, almost five times the property taxes paid for transit now.

But Florida lawmakers would have to give the agency power to do that, and Seel, a backer, acknowledged that was uncertain.

"I would have to have someone come in and convince me that it will meet a different fate than the tax that failed … before I would stick my neck out on that one," said newly elected state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who became chairman of the Senate's transportation committee Monday.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, a sponsor of the 2007 legislation creating TBARTA, also said he would oppose giving the agency such authority. Besides the poor timing — during a recession as a more conservative Legislature takes over — Fasano, R-New Port Richey, opposes giving an appointed board taxation powers, though some members are elected officials.

Failing that, supporters would have to get each county to pass the tax increase and turn over some control to TBARTA. County commissions also would have to agree to put the measure on the ballot.

The gas tax increase faces a similar uphill fight. A supermajority of the seven-member Pinellas County Commission would have to approve an increase. "For a relatively little amount of money, it's not worth the heat," said Seel, who opposed it Monday.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas transit panel wary of tax requests 11/15/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 15, 2010 11:49pm]

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