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Transit board considers its wish list

The transit authority wants funding to keep up with rising fuel costs and improve some bus routes. It wonders what will happen with property taxes.

By SHEELA RAMAN
Published September 12, 2006


Higher fares might not be the only way Pinellas residents pay more for their bus transportation next year.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority might decide that it needs a proposed property tax increase, too.

PSTA's board of directors will hold a public hearing Wednesday to consider the agency's proposed budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year.

A key point is whether the property tax rate for next year should be cut a little or a lot.

Cutting the tax rate a little - the current proposal - would still bring in 16 percent more tax revenues next year.

Cutting it a lot could force PSTA directors to make some difficult decisions about the agency's reserves and, perhaps, its operations.

There has already been one public hearing concerning the budget, which was held last week, but the board will make final decisions after the upcoming hearing, said Bob Lasher, the agency's manager of community relations.

Some board members have talked about going below the proposed rate to minimize the tax burden on Pinellas property owners, Lasher said.

The proposed millage rate of 0.6074 mills would be a reduction from this year's rate of 0.6377 mills, but with higher property values the agency would receive 16 percent more in property tax revenues under this rate.

A mill equals $1 in property taxes for every $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. At the current proposed rate, a homeowner with a $200,000 assessment and a $25,000 homestead exemption would pay about $106 in PSTA taxes. That hypothetical bill does not include taxes levied by the County Commission, School Board, cities or other local taxing authorities.

The taxes, combined with a recently approved 25-cent increase in fares, would help the PSTA increase its total revenues to nearly $55.8-million.

The PSTA needs the extra revenue from higher fares and taxes partly to pay for improvements to the transit service, Lasher said.

The proposed budget accommodates a greater bus frequency on four routes and later evening service on 11 routes.

But the PSTA would need to hire 23 more drivers and purchase 11 new buses.

There would also be the additional cost of hiring an off-duty police officer instead of private security staff to guard the Park Street terminal, because the PSTA has been unhappy with the private services, Lasher said.

Fuel prices are the other main reason the PSTA needs more money.

"In 2001 we were paying 60 cents a gallon for gas," Lasher said. "Now we're paying $2.44 a gallon."

Next year, the cost of fuel and supplies is expected to increase 32 percent, from $7.4-million to $9.8-million.

Although some board members would like to keep property taxes down, it is unlikely that any of the proposed transit improvements will be cut for that purpose, Lasher said.

"But we do have a little bit of leeway - extra money built into a reserve fund - so that does leave some room for discussion as far as taxes," Lasher said.

The proposed PSTA budget outlines more frequent service on Routes 4, 59, 60, and 74, and later evening service on Routes 11, 18, 38, 52, 59, 60, 61, 62, 66, 74 and 79.

IF YOU GO

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board will hold a public hearing on the agency's proposed budget for 2006-07 at 5:05 p.m. Wednesday at 3201 Scherer Drive, St. Petersburg. Here are some quick facts about the agency:

Proposed 2006-07 revenues: $55.79-million

Proposed revenues from fares: $10.07-million

Proposed revenues from taxes: $37.74-million

Miles covered annually: 8.3-million

Annual riders: 10.5-million

Daily riders: 35,000

Bus drivers (current): 371

Bus drivers (proposed): 394

[Last modified September 11, 2006, 22:26:00]


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