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Polk to Vote on Sales Tax for Transit

Robin Sussingham

Greenlight Pinellas is not the only mass transportation referendum coming up in the next election.  Polk County is also having its own vote on public transportation -- and it’s own raging debate. The so-called My Ride, My Roads plan will push the sales tax to 8 percent, raising money for road maintenance and greatly expanded bus service in Polk.

At Lakeland's downtown bus terminal, John Gusha and his wife, Angelina, are waiting for a bus. Gusha says he been riding the bus for 13 years, since he wrecked his truck. He says he can't afford another vehicle, but he also likes the idea of paying only $47 per month, which is the cost of the monthly bus pass.

For Gusha and his wife, the bus is convenient. But they say some of their friends, who live further out in the county, have a harder time.
"One of them, she comes in first thing in the morning and then she has to, all day, find something to do and then there’s only one bus that takes her back to the outskirts of the county.”

That's inconvenient, perhaps, but there are small towns in Polk County that have no public transportation at all, and no way for those people to get in to larger towns like Lakeland, to go shopping, to see a doctor -- or to work. 

And when you can’t get to a job, you can’t make a living, says Tom Phillips, who heads the mass transit programs for Lakeland and for Polk. Phillips sees it as just that black and white: no public transportation equals a high level of  poverty.

"Allen Berube, the executive director of the Brookings Institute, when he was asked by the Lakeland Ledger about the number one reason why we were the seventh poorest suburban area in the U.S., his answer was the lack of mass transportation outside the city of Lakeland," Phillips says. "I see a direct, one-to-one correlation between our suburban poverty rate and the lack of mass transportation. If you can't get to a job, then you're going to remain unemployed."

The My Ride sales tax increase would raise $64 million per year, and put more buses on the roads, provide taxi service vouchers for late shift workers, and fund express buses to Tampa's airport and  V.A. hospital, and to the Orlando airport.

It would also raise money to maintain the more than three thousand miles of roads in Polk.  Phillips says the county has been living off reserves to keep up its roads -- and says those reserves run out next fiscal year.

So the county now has a choice, Phillips says. It can do nothing, and let the roads and sidewalks deteriorate. It can jack up property taxes. Or, it can implement My Ride My Roads, which would increase the sales tax, but eliminate the transit portion of the property tax -- making Polk's property taxes among the lowest in the state.

"Our property tax rate is going to be half of what it would be to locate that home or business in Hillsborough," he says, "and rather than being tied with Osceola, we'd be lower than them as well.  So this would make us competitive in the housing market and extremely competitive in the large employer market."

He says that's why he has organizations like the Central Florida development council in his corner.

But in the other corner.... is Tim Rice. Rice owns an air conditioning business in Lakeland.  He's also the public face of the opposition, squaring off with Philips in debates and in print.

"Do you believe that we have all of these all of these jobs that are available, that are going unfilled, because people simply just can't get to that job?" Rice asks. "I don't think anybody believes that. Rather, I think the other is true. We simply don't have enough jobs."

And raising the sales tax to 8 percent, Rice says, is a jobs killer.

"If price goes up, demand goes down," he says. "If demand goes down, there's less jobs available. So to make the argument that this is going to be more beneficial to employment because  jobs are just going begging because people can't be transported to them, it just doesn't hold water."

Rice says existing property taxes will provide the money for road maintenance  as growth and property values increase.

Further, he says, who thinks transit is where Polk residents want to put their tax money?

 "Employment, education, health care, we've got a budding gang violence problem... these are the most important things that are going on in our community right now," Rice says. "Yet, they're looking to pass one of the biggest tax increases that we've had to pay for something that doesn't even show up on the radar screen as a priority."

There are a couple of big differences between Polk's plan and Greenlight Pinellas. In Polk's plan, there's no light rail. And, the sales tax would sunset after 12 years.

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