CLEARWATER — The Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan has struggled to win support in north Pinellas County, polls suggest.
The $2.2 billion plan would bring more bus and trolley service to north Pinellas, but its biggest ticket item, a proposed $1.6 billion light rail link from St. Petersburg, goes no farther north than Clearwater.
That has made it the touchstone issue in the crowded County Commission District 4 Republican primary, where seven candidates are vying to replace retiring Commissioner Susan Latvala. The north Pinellas district includes Tarpon Springs, Dunedin and Palm Harbor. Five candidates — Tim Keffalas, a local business owner; retired county worker Wanda Kimsey; firefighter Macho Liberti; former state lawmaker Peter Nehr; and former Tarpon Springs Mayor Jim Ronecker — oppose the plan. Their concerns include the cost, the effect of a higher sales tax on the local economy and the little return on investment for north Pinellas residents.
Only Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers and retired pediatric dentist Jimmy Johnson say they support Greenlight, leading some of their opponents to question their Republican credentials.
“I personally do not understand if you say you are a conservative who is not going to raise taxes how you can you be in favor of a program that will raise taxes by over $100 million per year,” said Nehr.
Eggers and Johnson both point out that voters will have the final say on Greenlight in the November referendum.
If approved, the plan replaces a transit tax with an extra penny sales tax bringing in about $130 million per year. That would raise the sales tax rate to 8 percent, the highest in Florida.
Johnson said his opponents have used the plan as a brickbat but they ignore the economic growth and new jobs he said will result from investment in transit.
“No one is talking about that, because it sounds good to talk about that tax being 8 percent,” he said.
Eggers said he would have preferred a half-penny sales tax increase to pay for more bus service and bus rapid transit systems. If those prove successful, the light rail system could be added later. However, he decided to support the plan approved by the county so Pinellas can move ahead with transit improvements he said are sorely needed.
“It’s probably going to be something that hurts my candidacy to some degree,” he said.
Elected mayor of Dunedin in 2009, Eggers was a city commissioner before that. A commercial real estate agent, he has raised $41,000 in campaign donations and was endorsed by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gaultieri.
If elected, he said he wants better communication between the county and Pinellas’ 24 cities and to remove regulation for small businesses. In Dunedin, he put together a group of contractors and asked them to review the city’s development code and suggest improvements.
“Let’s let the small businesses do their thing without being too stringent,” he said.
Although running for office for the first time, Johnson, 58, has surprised observers by raising more than $100,000 in contributions.
Recently retired from running a pediatric dentist practice, he has worked with the county to set up programs offering dental care to low-income and uninsured people, and another providing sealant treatment that prevents cavities for students in low-income schools.
The experience he gained building a practice from scratch will translate to making decisions on the county’s budget, he said. One of his priorities is for the county to do more to help residents in five areas identified as the poorest in Pinellas, and he believes the Greenlight plan is a part of the solution.
“There are families not able to work because no jobs are there or they don’t have transit to get them to their job,” he said. “Everyone suffers by paying more taxes when the tax base is not as healthy as it can be.”
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The Republican primary is Keffalas’ second run at public office following an unsuccessful bid for Tarpon Springs City Commission in 2013. The 59-year-old, who runs an automotive graphics company, trails all of his opponents in fundraising with $2,600 in donations. On the doorstep, Keffalas said he frequently hears that residents feel their taxes are spent in other parts of the county. If elected, he said, he would use part of his county salary to open an office in north Pinellas to engage with residents.
The Greenlight plan is too expensive and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority should revamp the existing bus network using its current funding, he said.
“It jeopardizes the Penny for Pinellas when we have to renew that,” Keffalas said.
Between 1975 and 2008, Kimsey worked for Pinellas County, including stints as assistant to two commissioners and agenda coordinator to three county administrators. She touts that experience as proof she can hit the ground running if elected. She has raised more than $18,000 for her campaign.
She said the county needs better transit but feels an 8 percent sales tax will hurt the local economy. Instead, she wants to work with the PSTA to increase service without raising taxes. PSTA leaders have warned they will have to slash the county’s already threadbare service if Greenlight does not pass.
She supports the upcoming referendum to award tax breaks to companies that create new high-paying jobs by relocating to Pinellas or expanding their local facilities.
“Local businesses want the extra support,” she said.
Liberti, a Largo firefighter for the past 11 years and another political newcomer, has run a campaign as distinctive as his name.
At one fundraiser, he planned to include a raffle to win an assault rifle but changed his mind after being told state law only allows nonprofits to run raffles. On his votemacho.com campaign website he includes pictures of him coaching a local middle-school basketball team and perched on the summit of a mountain.
The 35-year-old has been backed by the South Pinellas 912 Patriots, a local tea party group, and by a host of firefighter unions. He has raised just over $11,000 in campaign donations.
At age 18, Liberti was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia. He pleaded no contest and was fined.
He would like to see some consolidation of the county’s 18 separate fire districts and would like the county to explore ideas like Uber, the smartphone app that allows users to summon a taxi service using their phone.
“The voters I speak with don’t necessarily want to wait for a bus,” he said. “Some are interested in rail, but we don’t have rail coming into the north part of the county.”
Nehr, 62, has 10 years political experience serving on both the Tarpon Springs City Commission and Florida House of Representatives. He now runs a medical courier business. He has raised more than $45,000 in donations.
He twice has filed for bankruptcy and in 2012 faced criticism that he used campaign funds to pay his then-girlfriend, who he said worked as a consultant on his campaign. He stands by the payments.
He adamantly opposes the Greenlight plan, which he says will saddle the county with huge construction loan debt.
He also is against the potential sale of land Pinellas County owns in Pasco County, which includes water wells. Nehr said the county should hang onto the land that includes a profitable pine tree farming operation and as a fallback in case Pinellas needs it as a source of drinking water in the future.
“We’re making about $700,000 a year profit on that land,” he said. “Why should we sell it as a one-time influx into our budget? We’ll always have water problems.”
As mayor of Tarpon Springs during the recession, Ronecker, 49, twice lowered property tax rates at a time when other communities were raising them. He also championed the city’s largest infrastructure project, a reverse osmosis water treatment plant to give the city its own drinking water.
The owner of an Oldsmar printing business, Ronecker was appointed to fill a city council vacancy this year following the death of Janice Miller. He has raised $21,000 in donations.
He said he will bring a businessman’s perspective to the dais if elected.
Although opposed to Greenlight, he does favor improvements in transit but said Pinellas needs a coordinated plan that includes Hillsborough County.
“Tampa Bay needs a regional approach,” he said. “When people get on a bus in Clearwater, they want to know how they’re getting to Tampa and how they’re getting back.”
Note: The winner of the Republican primary will face Mark Weinkrantz, a Democrat; and Carl Folkman and Marcus Harrison, who both registered to run as not affiliated with a party, in the Nov. 4 general election.