FL: Polk Transit Board May Not Endorse Change in Tax Proposal

Jan. 21--BARTOW -- On Friday, County Commissioner George Lindsay suggested that proceeds from a proposed sales tax hike for road projects and transit operations go mostly toward roads in the early years.

On Monday, some members of the Polk County Transit Authority Board said they're not sure that's a good idea.

The discussion will occur at the next board meeting Wednesday at 9 a.m. in the County Commission board room.

The board is composed of Lindsey and some of his colleagues on the County Commission, as well as city elected officials.

So far, most of the questions are coming from the board's Lakeland representatives.

"I don't think we should water it down," said Lakeland City Commissioner Keith Merritt, the board's vice chairman. "That came out of nowhere."

Merritt said he was bothered by the "eleventh-hour" timing of Lindsey's proposal.

Lindsey unveiled his proposal Friday afternoon during a commission work session to discuss the ballot language and the implementing ordinance for the November referendum that would ask voters to approve a 1-cent per dollar sales tax increase.

Up until that point, the referendum had been advertised as a proposal to split the proceeds equally between transit and roads. Transit's share would be approximately $30 million a year.

The sales tax would replace a property tax levy imposed in the Lakeland-Mulberry area and would replace subsidies supplied by local governments to support the system. The transit property tax yields about $3.5 million a year,

The additional revenue would be used to expand service to more parts of Polk County and to offer transportation later in the day to help people to get to and from jobs or classes under a proposal called My Ride.

Lindsey proposed phasing in full funding of transit over a five-year period, arguing the system won't need the money until then.

"I'm concerned about the amount of money being raised," he said.

Commissioners made no decision on Lindsey's proposal Friday.

That decision will come following a public hearing Feb. 4 on the ballot language and the ordinance that would outline how the money would be spent if voters approve the measure.

Lakeland City Commissioner Don Selvage, another transit board member, said he's interested in hearing directly from Lindsey, but he said he was concerned about anything that will confuse the issue.

"It should be as clean as possible," Selvage said. "I have severe reservations."

Bartow Mayor James Clements and Mulberry City Commissioner Collins Smith said they had not heard of Lindsey's proposal.

Winter Haven City Commissioner Steve Hunnicut, who also serves on the board, could not be reached for comment.

Tom Phillips, executive director of Polk Transit and Lakeland Area Transit, said in an email to The Ledger, "It's important that people understand that ALL the current local funding, including the municipal, and County funding would cease" if voters approve the sales tax. That would include local funding from the County Commission, Lake Alfred, Winter Haven, Eagle Lake, Haines City and Bartow and the local portion of funding for the Medicaid and Transportation Disadvantaged programs.

[ Tom Palmer can be reached at tom.palmer@theledger.com or 863-802-7535. Read more views on the environment at http://environment.blogs.theledger.com and more views on county government at http://county.blogs.theledger.com/. Follow on Twitter @LedgerTom. ]



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