HART board gets proactive regarding possibility of consolidation with Pinellas County

HART board member Ron Govin kicked off the conversation, saying that it was incumbent for the agency's staff to begin gathering numbers together because "there's no background, no data, no statistics that ultimately have to be gathered before a decision is made."

Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez said that while he thought there might be some value to consolidation, the word he's heard from Tallahassee is that members of the Legislature want to provide more property tax relief, and the way to do that is to change the way that both agencies fund themselves, which is with property taxes, and instead make a "swap" to instead collect sales taxes to fund their operations. Suarez said that might not be a bad thing in the end, but would require the approval of Hillsborough voters to agree to such change.

Actually there is already work being done on the other side of the bay on that issue. PSTA has decided to pursue a possible public referendum on a "tax swap," which would eliminate the public property tax and replace it with a one cent sales tax.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman also said she was "very concerned about the lack of statistical information to come to this board" on whether it would be a good thing for Hillsborough citizens and taxpayers if the transit agencies merged. She then suggested that as opposed to coming out as a body against any such proposal, which might not work well politically, the best argument that HART can make to lawmakers in the state capitol is for them to fund a study to determine the pros and cons of consolidation. "Latvala is very powerful right now, "she said. "It's a little concerning to me...because I know how it works up there."

Murman, a former state legislator, said it would be beneficial to reach out to Wesley Chapel House Republican Will Weatherford, slated to become Speaker of the House in 2012, to try to slow down any such bill.

The HART board's desire for more data is critical, because Senator Latvala was fuzzy last month in discussing where he would get his information determining whether consolidation would be a good deal or not. He said that he has an "independent business group" with people from both Pinellas and Hillsborough county studying the numbers, but that they would not be releasing a printed report on their findings.

In addition to possible legislation that would address consolidation, board members were briefed on a Senate bill already filed by Bradenton's Mike Bennett that would deal with merging special districts without a referendum.

As the board members debated how they should handle the situation, they were joined on a telephone line by attorneys with a law firm based out of Fort Lauderdale who have been hired to help them lobby for any type of legislation addressing the consolidation issue.

Murman expressed unhappiness with the selection of an out of Hillsborough County firm to work with the agency, saying that there was plenty of talent in Tampa that could do just as good a job. "I'm befuddled," she said, though once that members of the firm joined in on the meeting (their name is Colodny, Fass, Talenfeld, Karlinsky Abate), the issue was dropped.

The board concluded by calling on their attorney, Chip Fletcher, to propose several broad policy statements that will be the focus of their mission in regards to the idea going forward. He will present that to the full board on November 7.

Clearwater GOP state Senator Jack Latvala's idea of consolidating the Tampa Bay area's two biggest transit agencies- HART in Hillsborough County with PSTA in Pinellas, is roiling HART board members, who spoke in concerned tones about the proposal at their meeting on Monday.

With committee hearings already taking place in Tallahassee for next year's earlier than usual regular legislative session, some members of the agency today expressed concerns that they are behind in preparing an argument about why there's not nearly enough information available at the time to argue whether such a consolidation would actually be a good thing.

At its heart, most members of HART sound extremely suspicious about the whole idea, certainly absent hard data, none of which exists right now in terms of arguing why it would be a better situation than currently exists (though Senator Latvala said when addressing HART members last month that he believed on its face it would certainly save money for both counties).

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