A written agreement between the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and county government should resolve concerns that the transit agency could levy both property and sales taxes if voters approve the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum in November. The PSTA formally agrees to end the property tax it levies now if the 1-cent sales tax is approved, and the transit agency and the county pledge to persuade state legislators to repeal its authority to levy property taxes. The agreement should erase any doubts about the financing foundation of the Greenlight plan and the strength of the PSTA's promise to replace the transit property tax with the sales tax.
The PSTA has been saying for several years that if voters would let it raise more money through a sales tax, it would give up the property tax that now funds the agency. Two years ago, the PSTA even persuaded lawmakers to pass legislation guaranteeing the repeal of its property taxing authority if the transit referendum passed. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill, which Greenlight opponents had lobbied against — an ironic twist, since one of their arguments against Greenlight was that the PSTA could collect both a property tax and the 1-cent sales tax if the voter referendum passes Nov. 4.
Levying both taxes was never the PSTA's plan, and the agreement approved by the Pinellas County Commission and the PSTA board last month formalizes the PSTA's intentions and builds in accountability.
The PSTA pledges in the agreement that if the sales tax referendum passes, it will stop levying its property tax on Oct. 1, 2015, and in any future year it gets sales tax revenue. If some future PSTA board goes rogue and levies a property tax anyway, the agreement allows the county to reduce the sales tax stream to the PSTA by the amount the property tax levy collects, and ultimately to permanently reduce or end the sales tax levy.
The agreement also hands the county the right to have its attorney approve documents involving loans or bonds the PSTA will seek to build the expanded bus system and light rail line; contains a "milestone schedule" for completing various phases of the Greenlight plan; declares that the sales tax may be spent only on Greenlight; and requires the PSTA to reimburse the county up to $100,000 for its costs associated with Greenlight.
Pinellas residents educating themselves in preparation for the transit referendum should not fear double taxation. It is illogical to believe that the PSTA would put at risk a $100-million-a-year sales tax revenue stream for a property tax that collects only $30 million. Any claims that Pinellas residents still could wind up paying both property and sales taxes for transit are off base.