ST. PETERSBURG — The recorded message sent to 50,000 Pinellas telephone numbers Thursday was voiced by the familiar English accent of TV salesman Anthony Sullivan.
“Good morning, this is Anthony Sullivan. You may recognize my voice from television. I’ve built my career sharing information about innovative products that solve problems and make life easier.”
Renowned for his ability to sell products like Oxiclean, Sullivan this time pitched an invitation to a live telephone “town hall” meeting on the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan.
He proved enticing enough for more than 4,700 residents to sit in on at least part of the hour-long conference call, during which Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller and Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala fielded questions on the transit plan.
The conference call, the first of three planned this month, is the latest salvo in the information battle between supporters and opponents of the Greenlight Pinellas mass transit plan, which goes before voters in a referendum Nov. 4.
Local elected leaders largely have backed the $2.2 billion plan to replace PSTA’s property tax with a one-penny sales tax hike to expand bus routes by 65 percent and build a 24-mile light-rail link between Clearwater, the Gateway area and St. Petersburg.
But opponents, led by No Tax for Tracks, are campaigning fiercely against the plan they say will saddle the county with an expensive under used system that will require increasing subsidies from taxpayers.
Organizers said the call was intended to help educate voters about the plan. In addition to asking questions on the call, residents also could submit questions through Facebook and Twitter.
Several of the questions focused on the sales tax hike. If approved by voters, Pinellas County’s sales tax would go from 7 to 8 percent, the highest in Florida.
Miller said that many residents would save money because they no longer would pay PSTA property tax, and that other communities also may vote to raise their sales tax rates this year. He said the increase would not dampen the county’s record levels of tourism, and the plan would mean tourists would pay their share of the county’s transit network.
“No one looks at sales tax rate before hitting that buy button for a vacation on Expedia,” Miller said.
Sullivan volunteered to record the message for PSTA, which will pay $48,125 to a vendor to host the three conference calls. PSTA leaders plan to spend $400,000 this year on an educational campaign after spending a similar amount in 2013.
The call coincided with Orlando citizens group Ax the Tax release of a poll it said showed 55 percent of 764 residents who voted in 2010 and 2012 general elections planned to vote against Greenlight. The margin of error was 3.5 percent.
The poll, conducted by local firm StPetePolls, followed a script written by Ax the Tax. It made no mention of the plan’s expansion of bus service, but focused on the more controversial light-rail component of Greenlight, claiming that the 24-mile network would cost every household more than $4,000.
The survey differs sharply from an internal poll of 402 likely voters conducted in early June for Friends of Greenlight that showed 59 percent support for Greenlight. The poll was conducted by SGS, a political consultant based in Gainesville. The margin of error was 4.9 percent.
Matt Florell, owner of StPetePolls, said the questions in the Ax the Tax Poll likely skewed the results.
“I don’t think it accurately shows what the final vote will be because those questions weren’t asked,” Florell said. “Never in the script once do they mention Greenlight; they only talk about rail.”
The other two telephone town hall conferences are scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, with plans to call and invite another 50,000 residents to each event.
“It’s the ability to reach more people,” PSTA spokesman Franco Ripple said. “In-person town halls will always be limited by space.”
The call-in number for the town hall conference is 1-877-229-8493. Then enter 19878# to join the call.
Participants may ask questions during or in advance of the call by tweeting to @Greenlight2014 or @RidePSTA, or on the Greenlight Pinellas or PSTA Facebook pages.