Sparks fly at Greenlight Pinellas debate at Tiger Bay Club

Posted by Mitch Perry on Thu, Apr 10, 2014 at 3:40 PM

The raw feelings between supporters and critics of the Greenlight Pinellas initiative that Pinellas County voters will decide on this November burst out into the open just moments into today's debate on the issue at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club at the St. Pete Yacht Club.

After the opening statements made by County Commissioner and PSTA chair Ken Welch and No Tax for Tracks leader Barb Haselden, Welch was asked if the transit initiative would aid in keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in the county. After saying that wherever the Rays land, mass transit will have to be a part of that solution, he then angered the initiative's critics when he said, "There are lies, darned lies and statistics. And I will add to that statistics from the hands of No Tax for Tracks." 

There was some immediate hissing in the audience.

"That's shameful," cried out a voice a moment later. It was Dr. David McKalip, a fierce opponent of Welch on a number of issues in recent years - and certainly on Greenlight Pinellas.

"You did the same thing in the fluoride issue," Welch fired back. "You disrupted the meetings just like you're doing now. If we're going to have a civil debate, we're not going to allow this to be poisoned..."

One of the points that irked Welch in Haselden's PowerPoint demonstration was her comment that Greenlight is falsely saying their plan for light-rail will ultimately connect St. Petersburg to Tampa. But Welch said that the Florida Department of Transportation has already approved $25 million for that idea. He also challenged Haselden's questioning of PSTA's ridership increasing, saying that the metric used is rides. "PSTA did not make that up," he asserted.

Civility between the two groups was brought up later in the forum, when USFSP Political Science Professor Emeritus Daryl Paulson asked Welch if it wasn't disrespectful of him to tar all opponents of Greenlight Pinellas with the same brush, saying in fact they may have legitimate concerns about the plan, which calls for an increase of the sales tax from seven cents to eight to pay for an expansion in bus service and the construction of a light-rail network from St. Petersburg to Clearwater Beach (the plan would also eliminate taking ad valorem taxes to fund PSTA, as is currently the case for many Pinellas residents).

Welch countered by saying his comments were centered directly at No Tax for Tracks members, saying that some of them had made personal comments about PSTA members, accusing them being corrupt or in one case, he said, of referring to one member's sexual orientation as a basis to oppose the plan.

"If you're going to make those accusations then I have to respond to that," he said, adding that he wasn't about to "lay down and roll over at the misinformation being put out there." He then went on to say that "these are the same folks who have said no to the county on fluoride, no to the county on our affordable housing program, no to the county on even Meals on Wheels... That's why I put that out there. There's a lot of bad information that is being put out there, a lot of personal attacks, things that don't advance the conversation."

Haselden responded, "I just have to reject so much of the hostility that I feel has been directed" toward her organization. She said she had herself put hours into studying the issue and rejected the personal attacks.

When asked for his take after the forum concluded, Dr. McKalip defended his outburst, saying that the entire Greenlight Pinellas campaign was based "on a pack of lies."

"So their only hope is to call people who tell the truth liars, and I'm not going to let them get away with that," he added, saying that he expected such tactics to persist through the duration of the campaign. 

"If you want to win the respect of voters, I don't think that necessarily attacking people who have some concerns about this is probably the most appropriate way to go," added Professor Paulson, who said he thinks the key problem for supporters of the initiative is convincing people from North County to buy into a plan that doesn't really offer them much. "Unless they can convince those people, I think they have a really tough time getting this to pass, just like Tampa did a few years ago."

One audience member who didn't seem impressed by Haselden's responses was Lois Fries, a self-described 74-year-old women who asked the No Tax for Tracks leader what would she propose for somebody like herself who won't be able to drive in a few years, specifically to get to the doctor or grocery store? Haselden responded by talking about the improved technology now available to everyone, such as self-directing Google cars. She also mentioned the demand response transportation service provided for people with disabilities in Pinellas known as DART as a possibility.

Quoting at one point from No Tax's website, Welch said he believes that the organization is against the entire concept of public transportation, and wants to privatize such services. But Haselden shot down that theory, saying she was against runaway spending for public transportation. 

The two also differed on the financial soundness of the Greenlight Pinellas plan. Haselden frequently invoked cost overruns happening at the light-rail project in Charlotte, which was vetted by Ernst & Young, the same accounting firm that Welch said has called the Greenlight plan fiscally responsible.

Welch also disputed Haselden's gloomy forecast regarding public subsidies for transit, saying that U.S 19 and Ulmerton Road are billion-dollar roads that are subsidized."it's about time we got some of those dollars back," he countered, and said that such forecasts were made about high-speed rail in Florida before studies showed it would make money for the state, not lose it. And he said light-rail will relieve congestion on Pinellas roads, not enhance it. 

With more than six months before Pinellas voters go to the polls, it might not be a cliche to say you ain't seen nothin' yet when it come to the intensity of this campaign. Polls differ on its likely success, but a tax increase anyplace in Florida, if not in much of the U.S, is always going to be a tough pitch in 2014, even for the worthiest goals.

Comments (4)

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I'm not a member of Tiger Bay Club and didn't attend the forum. Mr. Perry's very informative article did not include whether the property tax cut was mentioned by the speakers or as a question from the audience.

I'm a 71 year old retired senior on a fixed income who owns a condo. I'll be getting almost $200 per year in a property tax cut if the Greenlight Plan passes. I'd have to buy $20,000 of taxable items every year to reach that $200 figure w/ a 1% sales tax increase. There's no way I'll even get close to that b/c most of my money is spent on groceries, medicines and condo maintenance fees which are not taxed. I'm a large guy so I have to buy my clothes from a catalog which isn't taxed either.

So, just on the property tax savings, I think home owners should vote YES. Also, I'm a big Rays fan. Substantially increased bus service and later local passenger rail will increase fan attendance at games b/c many folks can't afford the high parking fees or don't even have a car at all. Hey, baseball is suppose to be the national pastime for all who want to go to games, not just for those fans w/ cars.

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Posted by Franklin on 04/10/2014 at 4:55 PM

PSTA says that they will stop collecting the ~$35 million in ad valorum (RE) taxes, and instead collect $148 million is sales tax. That is quite a deal for them, but it gets even better for PSTA. As of April 10, 2014, there is no law that would stop PSTA from collecting ad valorum taxes in the future. Only their word. There is nothing stopping them from collecting both. Read the referendum yourself.

Look around at the costs for CA high speed rail, Boston Big Dig, or Charlotte rail. Every project is over-budget by about 40%. It is not good or bad, its just the way gov operates. PSTA will need more money, and will ask for additional tax increases. There is no question about it. (Look on society of civil eng website)

Also, there is no guarantee they will build the rail. What happens if we approve the referendum and PSTA gets ~$100 million extra in revenue, but can't get the federal or state grants needed? Do you think PSTA will reverse the referendum?

What happens if they grants money stops after 3 years? We, the taxpayers must pay to finish the project.

The rail will run on the streets and RR crossings will also be installed. Under federal law rail is given the right-of-way over auto traffic, so it will increase congestion, and you will burn $200 worth of gas during 14 years of waiting at crossings and washing the mud off your car. And you taxes will still go up. Guaranteed.

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Posted by John Adams on 04/10/2014 at 7:39 PM

Yes, your property tax will be lowered and offset by the fact that sales tax will be paid by everyone, more than a $100 million/year in added taxes will be paid by non-property owners while you save a little money.
Non-property owners are the poor, seniors, middle class and anyone on a fixed income who lives from check to check and cannot afford more taxes. Property taxes will be eliminated which will be a savings for those with homes costing more than $200,000. For the remainder, it will be about the same. Property owners win, non-property owners pay the added $100 million.
That is simply not fair because the train soaks up 90% of the $2.8 BILLION project - buses account for only 10% ($300 million). It's all on the Greenlight website, but you have to dig pretty deep for it.
The only people who should vote yes for Greenlight are the 9,000 that PSTA predicts will ride the train weekdays in 2035. That is less than 1% of the population. 100% of us will pay 8% sales tax, highest in the state. All for a train from St. Pete to Clearwater.

Are YOU one of the 9,000 planning to ride that train in 2035?

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Posted by John18 on 04/12/2014 at 1:48 AM

The "tax switch" is a bait and switch -- property tax relief for vets and disabled vanishes, and we all get to pay a "penny for PSTA." Why should any agency have a penny sales tax dedicated to it? This is a naked power grab--check out salaries of executives at PSTA after this tax is in place. Pardon my lack of faith in this -- PSTA can find the money for a high-priced, Madison Avenue slick PR campaign but can't afford to provide bus service in my neighborhood.

Posted by Frank St. Pete on 06/28/2014 at 8:06 PM
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