CLEARWATER — Pinellas County commissioners have yet to finalize the ballot language they hope will convince residents to raise sales tax for an expanded bus and a light rail service.
But they filled in a few blanks Tuesday to help attorneys drafting what will be a highly scrutinized referendum question that will go before voters in November 2014.
If approved, property taxes that subsidize the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would be replaced by a penny sales tax, boosting the agency’s annual funding by roughly $100 million.
Commissioners want the ballot to be as plainly worded as possible.
The referendum will ask residents to raise sales tax by 1 percent, or a penny. Commissioners also said they want the new tax to stay in effect until repealed, instead of lasting for a set amount of time.
If approved, the new tax would take effect Jan 1, 2016, meaning county residents will pay their last PSTA property taxes in November 2014 for the 2015 financial year.
Commissioners also decided how strictly to define what the new tax money could be spent on, ruling out bridge construction and other options.
“Including all that list is a sure way to kill the referendum,” said Commissioner Susan Latvala. “If there is an assumption they could spend it on bridges, it will fail in a heartbeat.”
PSTA’s 30-year plan includes bus rapid transit, road lanes dedicated for bus travel and a 24-mile light-rail network from Clearwater to St. Petersburg that would cost an estimated $1.6 billion.
Engineering firm HNTB and accounting firm Ernst & Young last week released a report confirming PSTA’s cost estimates, grant forecasts and debt financing following a two-month study of the plan, known as Greenlight Pinellas.
But Commissioner Norm Roche, who has voted against expanding transit, said he still has doubts.
“The financial plan is predicated on federal and state funding,” he said. “What happens if that doesn’t come through?”