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Bus riders may soon pay more

Riders would have to pay when they transfer buses, the cost of monthly passes would go up and some routes would be cut if the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is to operate next year without raising taxes, according to the agency's budget proposal.

The $1 full fare and the 50 cent fare for seniors, the disabled and students would remain the same. But the proposal calls for eliminating free transfers between buses _ a service used by 26 percent of daily riders, according to PSTA.

"In other words, every time someone boards a bus, they would pay a fare," explained Roger Sweeney, the authority's executive director.

To help offset the increased costs to riders, Sweeney has proposed a new type of ticket called a day pass.

If approved, adults could buy a day pass for $2.50 and ride as many buses as they want in a day. Students, disabled people and senior citizens could buy a day pass for $1.25.

Prices of other bargain packages, such as the monthly unlimited ride pass, also would increase by $1 or $2 if the proposal is approved.

At their meeting Wednesday morning, board members listened to Sweeney paint a bleak picture of the authority's finances.

Board members learned they can't have it all.

Either fares go up and service is cut or property owners will have to make up the extra dollars with a tax increase, Sweeney told them.

After much debate, board members opted to pass along the costs and the inconveniences to bus riders.

Board member Bonnie Harding would have preferred a tax increase.

"You're talking about people that don't have any money," she said after Sweeney explained the proposed fare increases. "I wasn't angry when I read this, I was mad as hell."

But board member Austin Campbell said taxpayers will be angered if a tax increase is recommended.

"I've heard from the public," Campbell said. "They've said, don't raise our (property) taxes. I know how the people I represent expect me to vote."

Campbell, along with the majority of the other board members, voted to leave next year's tax rate the same as this year's.

That means the owner of a typical $75,000 home with a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay $33.49 next year to support the county's bus system, the same as this year.

Whether one's total tax bill would go up or down would depend on several other factors, however, such as whether a property's assessment changed, and whether other taxing authorities, such as the School Board, decide to raise their tax rate.

Sweeney said it's been his experience that bus riders more often object to service cuts than to ticket price increases. For that reason, Sweeney said, he tried to recommend service cuts only on routes that are seldom used or are covered by other buses. If approved, the new bus routes could result in delays for some riders. Also, Sweeney has recommended there be no bus service on Christmas Day.

Unless action is taken, the bus system will face a $600,000 deficit next year, according to the budget proposal. The bus system needs money for a variety of reasons, including a drop in federal funding, and increasing labor costs, Sweeney has said.

The public will have a chance to speak before new rates and schedule changes go into effect. Three public hearings, during which riders can find out if their routes are affected, have been scheduled on July Wednesdays:

At 9 a.m. July 12, at the St. Petersburg City Council chambers, 175 Fifth St. N, St. Petersburg.

At 4 p.m. July 19, at the County Commission chambers, 315 Court St., Clearwater.

At 9 a.m. July 26, at the PSTA's headquarters, 14840 49th St. N, near Largo.

After the public hearing July 26, board members will vote on the fare and schedule changes.

Public hearings on the proposed tax rate are scheduled for 5:05 p.m. Aug. 23 and 30 at PSTA headquarters. Board members will vote on the tax rate after the public hearing Aug. 30. At that time, board members could lower the tax rate, but they cannot raise it.

FIGURING YOUR TAXES

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is proposing a 1995-1996 tax rate of 0.6697 mills, the same as the current rate. A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. To determine what your bus system taxes would be, take the assessed value of your home and subtract the $25,000 homestead exemption, if you qualify. Then divide that number by 1,000 and multiply by 0.6697.

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