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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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PSTA leaders extol benefits of penny tax to small communities

— The Suncoast Beach Trolley trundles through Belleair Beach roughly every 30 minutes.

But it never stops.

In the early 1980s, the small residential coastal community of about 1,500 residents opted out of paying property taxes toward a countywide transit system run by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Instead, the city is a pass-through for the popular trolley route that carries passengers along Pinellas’ famed beaches between Clearwater and St. Pete Beach.

That is set to change if Pinellas voters in November approve the Greenlight Pinellas mass-transit plan for expanded bus service and a light-rail network. The $2.2 billion plan will be paid for through what PSTA leaders dub a “tax swap,” with a one-penny sales tax hike replacing PSTA property taxes.

But that makes the plan a tougher sell in Belleair Beach, and also Belleair Shore, Kenneth City and Tierra Verde, where residents have never paid property taxes toward transportation. None of the communities has publicly endorsed the Greenlight plan, which has enjoyed widespread backing from other Pinellas cities.

“We’ve never been part of PSTA,” Belleair Beach City Manager Nancy Gonzalez said. “There has been some opposition from residents.”

If approved by voters, the one-penny sales tax hike would bring in about $130 million a year for PSTA. That’s about $100 million more than it receives from property taxes.

Keen to assuage concerns about higher taxes, PSTA leaders stress that at least a third of that money will be paid by tourists. They also released estimates based on an IRS sales tax calculator that show the average county household would only pay about $20 more in sales tax than it paid in property taxes.

Those sums do not look so benign in Belleair Beach, where Greenlight would cost residents an estimated $152 more per year. The average cost in Belleair Shore is even higher, with residents contributing an average of $188 per year.

Instead, PSTA leaders have focused on the improvements in service residents would see. Trolley stops would be added in both cities and trolleys would run every 15 minutes with extended services on weekends and evenings. Increased transit would mean fewer cars and parking headaches.

“It’s an easier presentation to make to those that are seeing the property tax cut,” PSTA CEO Brad Miller said. “But those cities that are not in PSTA now do see the value of a service like public transit to their communities.”

Yes for Greenlight, the group of private companies including Realtors, hospitals and developers, backing the proposal also is tailoring its message to communities that do not pay toward PSTA.

“They won’t get the direct mail message that says tax swap,” said Chris Steinocher, campaign co-chair. “We want to be absolutely true all the time.”

In land-locked Kenneth City, a different message was needed.

The city would get bus service for the first time, and there would be more frequency on nearby bus routes, Miller said. Like the rest of the county, residents also would benefit from increased service of PSTA’s DART, which provides doorstep pickup for people with disabilities.

Still, there remain doubts, and so far the city has not endorsed the plan.

“We really just have not had enough discussion about this issue,” Kenneth City Mayor Teresa Zemaitis said.

In St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island, residents do not pay property taxes directly to PSTA. But the two cities contract for trolley service from their general fund, with St. Pete Beach paying roughly $416,000 and Treasure Island $213,000 to PSTA every year.

Leaders in both cities have backed the Greenlight plan, pointing to the increased trolley service and saying that better transit will make it easier for tourists to reach their communities.

Although it’s not in the Greenlight plan, Treasure Island Mayor Robert Minning wants to see a return of a bus route from the island to downtown St. Petersburg along Central Avenue. He said long term, the Bus Rapid Transit and light rail would put Pinellas beaches more in reach of residents all across Tampa Bay.

“Ultimately, one of the reasons we’ve supported it is it will enhance transportation from the Hillsborough side over to the beaches,” he said.

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