Pinellas joins Hillsborough in punting any potential transportation sales tax

Commissioners said it was more important to focus on the economy and helping citizens during the coronavirus pandemic
The Pinellas County Commission , shown here in March, declined to move forward on the transportation tax issue Thursday.
The Pinellas County Commission , shown here in March, declined to move forward on the transportation tax issue Thursday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published April 2, 2020

Pinellas County commissioners decided Thursday to postpone any potential transportation sales tax until the 2022 ballot.

No vote was needed, but five commissioners went on the record saying that now was not the right time to ask residents to raise taxes. Instead, commissioners said, the county should focus on the economy and helping people through difficult times during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it would be really inappropriate to move forward with this issue at this moment," Commissioner Janet Long said. “I’m really worried about making sure we can provide essential services for our citizens.”

County staff had planned earlier this month to present a $5 billion project list and options of how to pay for it to the commission on Thursday. But everything changed when the coronavirus reached Florida and the state started confirming COVID-19-related deaths in Pinellas.

Related: What could $5 billion do for Pinellas transportation? County has some ideas.

County Administrator Barry Burton scrapped the presentation and instead asked commissioners whether they wanted to move forward with the surtax discussions. No commissioner spoke in favor of addressing transportation at this time.

“I think it’s a capacity issue, and capacity of our constituents to even really comprehend or even think of this when the peak isn’t even here yet,” Commissioner Ken Welch said. “They’re thinking about putting food on the table.”

Only one person was present at the in-person meeting for public comment: Tom Rask, a frequent speaker on transportation-related issues.

Commission Chairwoman Pat Gerard recognized Rask, who was in another room to comply with social distancing requirements. While waiting, Gerard’s microphone picked up on her talking to a fellow board member. “He’s going to tell us we shouldn’t do it. Start the clock now," she laughed, referring to the 3-minute clock limiting how long people can speak.

Related: "People are hurting." Hillsborough commissioners won't consider back-up transportation sales tax until 2021

Hillsborough County commissioners voted Wednesday to defer any public hearing on a back-up transportation sales tax until 2021, citing the increased financial strain many families are facing as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike Pinellas, Hillsborough’s commission was more split on the topic. Commissioners Pat Kemp, Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith wanted to at least keep options open, saying they could pull any referendum off the ballot between now and April. They were outvoted by commissioners Ken Hagan, Les Miller, Sandy Murman and Stacy White.

Welch mentioned Hillsborough’s decision as one reason why he did not think now was the right time for Pinellas to move forward. Collaboration, he said, would help when the time came to decide whether to ask citizens to tax themselves to pay for transportation projects.

“I think we have a much better presentation when we are talking about this the same time Hillsborough is," Welch said.