HART board members antsy about new study on PSTA merger

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It's not a surprise that members of HART, Hillsborough County's transit agency, aren't fond of the prospect of merging with their Pinellas County counterparts, PSTA, and they cheered when the idea seemed to wither after an initial study was released last year.

But the merger — pushed predominantly by Clearwater area state Senator Jack Latvala — is still very much a possibility. Latvala called for a new study to be conducted during last year's legislative session, and the accounting firm KPMG will present the findings to the state Legislature in February.

With that report just weeks away from completion, HART chair Fran Davin said today that she is troubled regarding the lack of discussions between the two transit agencies over the past year. Davin said that she has reached out "repeatedly" to both PSTA's executive director Brad Miller and outgoing chairman Jeff Danner for months with no success.

"I think it's really questionably procedurally to have something as important as the consideration of merging two deep entities and there's been no communication between the two entities," Davin said.

Staff members of both agencies have been meeting over the past year, but the policy makers have not.

Of course, members of PSTA have certainly been busy in recent months. A ballot measure that would raise the sales tax in Pinellas to pay for construction of a light-rail system that runs between Pinellas and Clearwater has been their major focus in 2013, and the Pinellas County Commission officially approved the measure to put on next November's ballot last week.

CL spoke to PSTA executive director Brad Miller after today's HART meeting. He said that Jeff Danner was contacted by Davin this past summer about a get together on the KPMG report, but said officials with TBARTA said there was no reason to have a policy meeting that early in the process.

When asked if he could contemplate such a meeting with HART members, Miller said there "may be" such a need before the study is sent to the Legislature.

The first study analyzing a merger between HART and PSTA was produced by McCollom Management Consulting was released late last year. It said it would cost more than $1.1 million for a formal partnering of the transit services and about $1.9 million for a full merger. But it also reported that $2.4 million could be saved annually by consolidating senior staff.

"The KMPG study is by virtue of the HART board insisting on a much more detailed quantification of the potential cost savings. That is what it has been focused on, " Miller said of the new merger study.

Marco Sandusky, HART's Manager of EEO and Compliance Programs, said that KPMG was reviewing the earlier study and looking "deeper" at some issues brought out in that report.

Many HART members have expressed skepticism about the benefits of such a merger, concerns that were again referred to on Monday. HART board member Kevin Beckner said that he failed to see how two different agencies from across Tampa Bay would be able to consolidate as one and still be able to serve their respective constituencies. "To merge them into one organization and be able to serve all of those people on both sides of the Bay, I just don't see how that works," he said.

The study is expected to be sent to TBARTA's board on Jan. 24, and to the Legislature on Feb. 1, as is mandated by the bill passed in the Legislature earlier this year.

PSTA has formed a subcommittee to review the KPMG study that will be meet on Jan. 17. HART board members who met as the Finance, Governance and Administration Committee decided today that they should bring in their full board for a meeting on the upcoming study, also on Jan. 17.

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