CLEARWATER — The promise that property taxes for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority will be eliminated if voters approve a one-penny sales tax hike is a key selling point of the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan.
But it has been one that critics say is ripe for abuse and could lead to residents being double-taxed.
Looking to reassure voters ahead of the plan’s November referendum, commissioners on Tuesday approved an agreement between the county and the PSTA that gives the county some control over how the authority uses the sales tax revenue, which is estimated to bring in $130 million per year.
The agreement also attempts to disarm a key fear of critics that future transit boards will reintroduce property taxes.
Under the Greenlight plan, the board is required to set its property tax rate to zero. That is because only state lawmakers can rescind the agency’s taxing authority. A bill that did just that, providing that the referendum passed, was approved by lawmakers two years ago but vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Under the new agreement, commissioners have the authority to withhold the Greenlight sales tax if the authority resumes levying a property tax.
“This is a very strong agreement,” Commissioner Ken Welch said. “It really does ensure that the ad valorem PSTA tax will go away.”
The $2.2 billion Greenlight plan includes a 65 percent expansion of the authority’s bus network, a 24-mile light-rail network linking the downtowns of Clearwater and St. Petersburg through the Gateway area, and a traffic system that would give priorities to buses. It is seen by supporters as a vital first step to the development of mass transit across the whole of Tampa Bay.
Sales tax revenue will provide a little more than half of the money, with state and federal transportation funds making up the remainder. The PSTA plans to issue bonds based on some sales tax revenue to pay for construction costs of the project.
Other provisions in the agreement give the county authority to hold back sales tax if the agency decides not to move ahead with the Greenlight plan or defaults on its bond repayments.
It also includes triggers, such as completion of the Greenlight infrastructure and when the agency has fully paid off construction bonds, at which points commissioners can reassess whether it still needs the whole proceeds from the penny sales tax.
“Other systems haven’t had accountability like that,” transit authority CEO Brad Miller said.
Commissioner Norm Roche, who has voted repeatedly against the Greenlight plan, said he was concerned the county would be liable if the agency defaulted. Miller said county general revenues would not be at risk because only the sales tax would be used to guarantee bonds.
Roche also expressed concern that state lawmakers who represent Pinellas districts have yet to back the project, which relies on state and federal funding.
Republican lawmakers are unlikely to advocate for a new tax but will support Greenlight if it is approved by voters, Commissioner Susan Latvala said.
Lawmakers and the governor also recently have shown more support for rail and transit, such as Orlando’s SunRail system, which received state funding for a station, commissioners said. Failure to keep up with other Florida communities such as South Florida, which has the Tri-Rail system, could damage the county’s economy, they warned.
“We have to have the courage and the leadership to move forward,” Latvala said.
In other action:
Commissioners delayed a decision on whether to scrap plans for a $5 million clinic to give medical treatment to the homeless. They plan to hold a workshop in the next few weeks to discuss possible funding options and whether to downsize the project.
Approved putting a countywide referendum on the August primary ballot that would allow the county to waive property taxes for up to 10 years for companies that bring new, high-paying jobs to Pinellas.