CLEARWATER — Leaders of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority have earmarked an additional $250,000 to spend on an informational campaign about the Greenlight plan to develop mass transit in Pinellas County.
The agency allocated $150,000 for the campaign in its 2014 budget, but said this week it may spend up to $400,000 on the outreach effort in the months leading up to the November referendum on whether to raise sales tax by 1 cent to pay for expanded bus service and a light-rail network.
The outreach effort comes after local elected leaders said the agency needs to combat misinformation they say is being spread by Greenlight opponents.
The extra $250,000 would come from savings from lower fuel costs and money reallocated from other marketing initiatives, transit authority CEO Brad Miller said. PSTA also spent $400,000 last year on an outreach effort aimed at the public and business and civic leaders.
Greenlight opponents say the spending is a waste of public funds and is positive promotion of the transit plan. Under state law, tax dollars cannot be used to sway how residents vote in an election.
“It doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Tom Rask, an activist and member of No Tax for Tracks, a group campaigning against Greenlight. “It’s very one-sided and they’re spending public funds and that’s wrong.”
PSTA leaders counter that their campaign is no different to other educational initiatives run by local governments prior to referendums, and that voters need detailed information on how the money would be spent. Similar campaigns were run before the 2007 referendum to extend the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.
Details of the outreach plan have yet to be finalized, but it could include direct mail and advertisements in local newspapers and on news websites, said Cassandra Borchers, PSTA chief development officer.
The agency also is planning to print brochures and fact sheets, and to run a Greenlight Academy, a classroom-like event for residents who want an in-depth explanation of the plan from PSTA staff.
“Sometimes people want to dig a little deeper and want personalized attention about what is in the plan,” Borchers said.
PSTA’s outreach campaign will be in addition to a privately funded advocacy campaign called Yes for Greenlight, expected to raise about $1 million to promote the Greenlight plan. That campaign got off to a rocky start when co-chairman Ronnie Duncan stepped down this week after Greenlight opponents said his involvement conflicted with his role as chairman of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. The campaign also parted ways with PR firm Tucker Hall.
If approved by voters, the $30 million in property taxes that fund PSTA would be replaced by $130 million a year from a 1-cent sales tax hike. The money would go toward a 65 percent expansion of bus services, a 24-mile light rail network linking Clearwater and St. Petersburg, and the development of traffic lanes dedicated solely for buses.
The referendum is on Nov. 4.