PSTA board members today voted unanimously to spend $250,000 more for their informational campaign about the Greenlight Pinellas plan to develop mass transit in Pinellas County, but not without some discussion about whether the funding should go towards more pressing needs.
Previously, the transit agency had allocated $150,000 out of its budget, which prompted board member Brian Scott to say he had concerns about using additional funds when the department's maintenance budget is already $234,000 over budget.
"If we have an additional $250,000, I think that should be put into operations for buses or (maintenance) parts," he said.
Board Chairman Ken Welch said Scott's concerns were indicative of why the Greenlight measure needs to pass in November. If not, he said, PSTA will have to reduce its current level of service because of insufficient funding.
PSTA Executive Director Brad Miller acknowledged that the agency is over budget on some items and under budget on others, but maintained that the initial budgeting of $150,000 for informing the public about the November transit tax measure was insufficient. He said that the original funding was calculated under the assumption that "we could do rotary club after rotary club" in getting the word out, but admitted that's not getting the job done.
Other board members agreed there was a lack of information, or even what they called misinformation, about the one-cent sales tax increase that will go towards a 10-year plan to expand bus service by 65 percent and build a light-rail network running from St. Petersburg to Clearwater.
Largo City Commissioner Michael Smith repeatedly called a recent community forum on the Greenlight Pinellas initiative "a big eye-opener," saying he discovered a considerable knowledge gap among many voters about the plan. St. Petersburg City Councilman Wengay Newton agreed, saying he attended a presentation by the anti-transit group No Tax For Tracks that he said contained plenty of misinformation. "They need to know that doing nothing is not an option, and if we do nothing, that's pretty much what they're going to have."
Prior to voting on the item, the board heard from Cassandra Borchers, PSTA chief development officer, who presented a 10-point plan that agency officials have enlisted to engage the public and give them the information they'll need to be adequately informed come November.
Three of those points are already underway, while a separate brochure and fact sheets touting what's the in the plan will go up later this week. There will also be a "Greenlight Academy," Borchers said, that will consist of small classes that board members will host in small groups to sell the plan. More outreach to riders is also part of the plan.
Greenlight critics have lambasted the funding that PSTA has authorized for the informational campaign, claiming that the agency is crossing the line and is now fully engaged in advocating for the measure, which they, as a public agency, are not allowed to do.
That's what Yes on Greenlight, the new political action committee being funded by private entities, is supposed to be about.
No Tax for Tracks member Tom Rath urged the PSTA board to delay approving the additional funding, and criticized them for rejecting No Tax For Tracks' offer to spend $15,000 to advertise against the Greenlight measure on PSTA buses.
Commissioner Welch said that PSTA could not accept No Tax for Tracks money, saying they are not allowed to run political ads — only informational ones.
Earlier, Commissioner Welch and Rath conducted a testy exchange regarding a public records request that was initially rejected by PSTA because of inaccurate information. But Rath said he received that inaccurate information from PSTA, and claimed the resistance he was getting from the board was creating a "chilling effect" on citizens' ability to communicate.
Commissioner Welch appeared to take some exception to that, and said that some of Rath's email requests bordered on "being insulting." "I doubt there's any chilling effect," he added.