Anti-rail critics in Pinellas County get inspiration from Atlanta Tea Party star

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Debbie Dooley addresses the No Tax for Tracks gathering in Largo Tuesday night
  • Debbie Dooley addresses the No Tax for Tracks gathering in Largo Tuesday night
Most of the Pinellas/St. Petersburg political and business establishment favor Greenlight Pinellas, the ballot measure calling for an increase in the county's sales tax that will go before Pinellas County voters this fall. Funding from the initiative would go towards expanding bus service and build a 24-mile light-rail network from Clearwater to St. Petersburg.

But as mass transit supporters across the bay know all too well, when it comes to raising taxes, such a plan is no easy ask.

So while the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) spent nearly $400,000 to Tampa-based PR firm Tucker/Hall to spread the word about the proposal last year, anti-rail activists just now are starting to ignite their campaign against the measure.

On Tuesday night at the Abundant Life Ministries Church in Largo, approximately 120 people gathered for an information/pep-rally highlighted by an appearance by the co-founder of the Atlanta Tea Party, Debbie Dooley, who led the efforts in Georgia to stifle a $7 billion statewide transportation referendum in the summer of 2012, even though they were outspent by over $6 million.

"We were laughed at," she told the rapt audience. "We were basically told 'do you think that you’re going to really defeat us?'"

Dooley described how the Tea Party in Atlanta was aided by their able to persuade normally pro-rail groups like the NAACP and the Sierra Club to their side because of specific issues those groups also had with the proposal (The Sierra Club thought the plan was too road heavy; the NCAAP thought the proposed rail line bypassed communities of color).

"Don’t be afraid to approach groups and present to them why this is bad for them," she said, adding that it was a regressive tax that will adversely affect the poor and senior citizens the most."You have to stay on message over and over again, and it will resonate."

Though Dooley was the headliner, No Tax for Tracks campaign manager and spokeswoman Barbara Haselden was the real workhorse for the evening. Offering a PowerPoint presentation featuring mostly PSTA graphs and handouts, Haselden blasted criticism from PSTA officials that she is not telling the truth in No Tax's campaign. "How can it be I'm not telling the truth," she asked. "I'm using their slides," a line which drew hearty applause.

She cited a statistic that the top five local routs by PSTA account for 46 percent of all bus rides in the county, and then played back on video comment by a member of the PSTA staff saying that exact same thing.

The plan is actually being called a tax swap because it would change the funding formula for PSTA. Currently the Pinellas County transit agency receives its taxpayer funding through ad valorem taxes, but the ballot measure would end that subsidy and switch the funding through an increase to the county's sales tax. But Haselden said that because the county would receive much more money from the new formula, it wasn't really tax neutral.

"This is a massive tax grab," she declared. "If I sold this type of insurance, I’d lose my license."

Preceding Haselden at the mic was Tea Party activist Steven D. Lang, who cited specific projects that the city of St. Petersburg has attempted to do in the past decade that met with strong neighborhood opposition, such as tearing down Albert Whitted Airport or building a new baseball park on the Waterfront, as models of how the light-rail critics could be successful.

Kevin Thurman is executive director of the pro mass transit group Connect Tampa Bay, which supports the Greenlight Pinellas plan. He says No Tax for Tracks is certainly entitled to their opinion when it comes to issues like how people would like their taxes spent and whether that's where the community's emphasis on economic development should be.

But citing a recent comment by Haselden in Monday's Tampa Tribune who said that PSTA windown are tinted so residents "will not be able to see how few people are on board," Thurman says many of the critics don't really know much at all about transportation.

"No, they tint the windows because it’s hot in Florida, and it saves taxpayers money," Thurman exclaims, adding "And that is what is fundamentally wrong with their side and why they’re going to lose because Greenlight and Jeff Danner (former PSTA chair) and all those people who are working hard, are actually communicating what’s in a plan."

A poll conducted by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay at the end of last year showed 55 percent of Pinellas voters support the transit plan, 36 percent opposed it, and nine percent were undecided.

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