The decision came after parties from both sides pleaded their cases as to why the commission should or should not endorse the polarizing $100 million mass transit project, which will be on the ballot in November’s general election.
One by one, nearly two dozen people stepped to the podium at City Hall and expressed their opinions about the plan, which calls for an increase in bus services as well as a light rail system that will help connect Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties by implementing a one-percent sales tax increase.
“I’m here tonight not to encourage you not to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’, just to remain neutral,” Barbara Haselden, an outspoken opponent of the plan, said during the public comments portion of the agenda item. “Of course I would like for you to vote ‘no’, but it would be wonderful for you to let this system play out.”
“This is an attempt to create the illusion of consensus around the county that everyone wants this.”
“I just really don’t want the City to take a position one way or the other,” former Safety Harbor Planning and Zoning Board member Karen Kallal added. “I honestly have not yet made up my mind. I’d rather the City just be neutral.”
While the majority of the speakers echoed Kallal’s sentiments and asked the Commission to remain neutral on the issue, there were some who requested support for the plan.
“I like to encourage you today to endorse the Greenlight Pinellas plan,” Safety Harbor resident James Fogerty said. “This plan is a benefit for Safety Harbor. We’ll see things like increased bus service and continuation of the Safety Harbor (Jolley) trolley, and most importantly, a change in the way that we do things.”
PSTA director Brad Miller, of course, requested the commission’s endorsement of his organization’s project, but he also praised the city for it’s thorough exploration of the matter.
“I want to thank the City Commission,” Miller said. “Having been to 21 of the 24 cities so far in Pinellas County so far, you are the ones who have spent the most time and gotten the most number of PowerPoint presentations on the subject, so I think you are all fully informed.”
“It’s very important, I think, to know what’s in it for Safety Harbor,” he added, noting a doubling of the bus service to the city and increasing the weekend Jolley Trolley to a daily service, while adding the average homeowner would save money thank to the plan’s proposed elimination of the PSTA’s property tax.
“There will be a net savings for homeowners in Safety Harbor even if they never use the system.”
After hearing the public comments, the commission had to decide whether or not to endorse the project.
As was the case with the public, the commissioners were also split on the issue.
“What we’re voting on here is the vision that is being presented,” Vice Mayor Cliff Merz said, noting that he has served as Safety Harbor’s representative to the PSTA since January 2013. “We’re not making a decision on Greenlight Pinellas. The voters will make that decision.”
But to Commissioner Rick Blake, voting on the resolution was akin to encouraging voters to support the plan.
“I think this is almost a tactic of sorts to get all these organizations to support the vision without the actual details of it, and that, to me, is a little concerning,” he said.
“I’m not on board with the City of Safety Harbor supporting it as a whole without knowing what all those detailed benefits are.”
Following comments from Commissioners Andy Zodrow and Carlos Diaz, Mayor Andy Steingold had the last word before the vote.
“I was on PSTA, I went to two meetings, and I really pushed hard to get it on the ballot,” the mayor said. “Although I didn’t necessarily agree with it, I thought it was good…to let the people make a decision whether or not they want it.”
“I have not been satisfied with it, mainly because I do not agree with the split,” he added, stating he believes there should be greater emphasis on the light rail system, which he called the future, and less on the “beefing up of the bus system.”
“I don’t want to take action with it, and I think that what we do up here obviously impacts what our residents think throughout the city.”
Despite the mayor’s urging, the commission ultimately passed the measure by a vote of 3-2, with Mayor Steingold and Commissioner Blake expressing the nay votes.
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*Note: Commissioner Rick Blake owns the parent company of Safety Harbor Connect.com.