The first tangible signs of Pasco County government's still-percolating business plan could be less about long-range transit development and more about mobile advertising. In the coming weeks, commissioners will be asked to allow the county to sell advertising on its Pasco County Public Transportation buses with a goal of netting $75,000 annually.
At first blush, the proceeds appear relatively minimal. But, consider the county was unable to find $70,000 in two previous fiscal years to begin a planned bus route to serve the Moon Lake area of west Pasco. Likewise, the county cut its transit operation — eliminating service on holidays, reducing the frequency of buses along U.S. 19 and raising fares — at the start of the Oct. 1 fiscal year to help close a budget shortfall even with a 19 percent increase in the property tax rate.
Clearly, the status quo is not acceptable in a county that envisions bus service in central Pasco in the coming years and a long-range plan that calls for extensive mass transit options including express buses and light rail to link Pasco to Hillsborough, Hernando and Pinellas counties.
Staff members briefed commissioners on the advertising idea Tuesday morning during a workshop on the county's evolving business plan for 2010, a new document intended to help guide annual budget decisions and allocation of personnel. Selling advertising on buses is a new revenue source proposed by the staff.
The commission's initial response was mixed. That should be expected in light of the county's work at the outset of the decade to ban new billboards, rein in bus bench advertising and adopt other aesthetic controls to help reduce the county's cluttered road sides. Commissioner Ted Schrader wondered about the hypocrisy of allowing advertising on buses while prohibiting new billboards.
It's a legitimate question, but one the county already answered with its own actions. Since 2007, the county's tourist development personnel have driven a Chevy Uplander covered in shrink-wrap advertising touting Pasco as a destination for visitors.
It is that same shrink-wrap technique that could produce the most advertising revenue for the county's mass transit system. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, for instance, charges $3,500 a month with a three-month minimum contract to wrap an entire bus in advertising.
Commissioner Michael Cox expressed reservations, pointing out that his recent trip to Charlotte revealed authorities there are proud the new rail system operates with advertising only to build ridership, not to sell products or services. He worried advertising will degrade the county's public transit system. Commissioner Jack Mariano endorsed the plan, while Commissioners Pat Mulieri and Ann Hildebrand were absent for medical reasons.
Commissioners aren't expected to be presented the proposal until early next year. It is an idea worthy of public debate and Cox and Schrader should have their concerns addressed by the full board. Outside opposition isn't anticipated. Scenic Pasco, the group that advocated for billboard and bus bench controls, is inactive and likely wouldn't have tackled the issue anyway since the buses are mobile, not a permanent part of the landscape. It also is worth noting each of Pasco's adjoining neighbors in the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority — Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando counties — allow advertising on their buses.
More importantly, the county's economic climate has changed amid falling real estate values, greater property tax exemptions, and a local unemployment rate above the state and national averages. A commission resistant to further property tax increases will have to identify other revenue sources if it wants to avoid a repeat of the service cuts that dominated the 2009 budget deliberations.
Having a sign on the outside of the bus is preferable to not having the bus at all.