ST. PETERSBURG — A local lawmaker is calling for a state investigation into whether a Pinellas County transit agency broke the law by using taxpayer dollars to promote the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan.
In a letter sent Tuesday, State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, asked the Florida Department of Transportation’s inspector general to conduct a review of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s Greenlight publicity campaign, which began last year.
The public agency, which runs Pinellas’ bus and trolley services, spent $400,000 in 2013 developing and promoting its plan to expand bus service and to build light rail through a one-penny sales tax hike. It plans to spend a similar amount this year for what officials describe as an educational campaign ahead of a November countywide referendum on the plan.
Under state law, tax dollars can be used to inform residents but not to influence how they will vote in a referendum, a fine line Brandes said PSTA may have crossed.
In a recent interview on WTSP-TV, transit authority CEO Brad Miller acknowledged the campaign website does not list potential risks or drawbacks of the plan, Brandes said. In his letter to DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad, Brandes also listed PSTA spending on novelty publicity materials such as Greenlight pens and necklaces as a possible misuse of tax dollars.
“The executive director admitted there are no negative facts on their website,” Brandes said. “It’s not balanced, it’s completely one-sided.”
PSTA officials deny their campaign is advocating for a yes vote and said they have a duty to inform voters about the plan so they can make an informed decision at the polls.
“PSTA has always, and continues to conduct its Greenlight Pinellas Educational outreach with full transparency and in full compliance with the law,” spokesman Bob Lasher said in a statement. “We are proud of our efforts and are confident that any inquiries by the Department of Transportation will only confirm these facts.”
The pens and the necklaces list the campaign name and its website. The necklaces also say, “Learn about the plan.” Both items are intended to draw voters to the website so they can learn more about Greenlight, Lasher said.
The Greenlight website also includes a link to a study produced by Ernst and Young that lists some of the risks the county would face if ridership numbers fall too far below estimates or if funding sources fail to pan out.
If approved by voters, the $33 million in property taxes PSTA receives would be replaced by $130 million a year from a one-cent sales tax hike, pushing the county sales tax rate to 8 percent. The money would go toward a $2.2 billion plan to expand bus service by 65 percent, build a 24-mile light rail network linking the downtowns of Clearwater and St. Petersburg and develop traffic lanes dedicated solely for buses.
Brandes, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, met with Prasad Tuesday and said the DOT secretary has pledged to talk to the agency’s attorneys about the issue.
He said DOT is the right agency to review PSTA spending because it provides the transit agency with about $5.5 million in transportation grants and fuel tax revenue.
An outspoken critic of the light-rail portion of the plan, Brandes said his views on the plan were not behind his decision to call for an investigation.
“My concern has very little to do with light-rail — it has a lot more to do with misuse of scarce taxpayer resources,” he said.
PSTA board Chairman and County Commissioner Ken Welch said Brandes’ concerns are the same ones raised by Greenlight opponents No Tax for Tracks. Brandes never raised those concerns when he met with PSTA’s legislative delegation about two weeks ago, Welch said.
“I can’t speak for what Sen. Brandes’ motives are,” Welch said. “I’m fully confident we have complied with the letter and intent of the law.”