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HART board members deny that collaboration with PSTA is a backdoor attempt to merge agencies

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

A Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) committee approved a Memorandum of Understanding with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) on Monday for further collaboration between the two Bay area transit agencies, but not before some members had to tamp down the notion that the agreement could ultimately lead to a merger — and perhaps a tax increase for transit.

“This would be adopting an agreement to codify some opportunities to work more closely together,” said HART CEO Katharine Eagan in presenting the proposal to the agency’s ​​Legislative and Strategic Planning Committee.

The emergence of creating a formal agreement enshrining cooperation and collaboration between the two agencies began last fall, when Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long proposed that HART and PSTA form a “Regional Council of Governments.

At a meeting of PSTA’s executive meeting held earlier this month in discussing the MOU, PSTA executive director Brad Miller laid out a timeline of how both agencies could approve the MOU in time for himself and Eagan to travel to Tallahassee to present to Tampa Bay area legislators in early February.

That timeline is a concern to Tea Party activist Sharon Calvert, who told HART committee board members on Monday that “all of this merger and regional orchestration has been done … in quiet discussions, without much transparency or time for the public to weigh in.” She called on officials to clearly state in the MOU that “this was not a merger.”

In that January 6 PSTA executive committee meeting, Long reiterated her opinion that by having the agencies speaking as a regional voice, it would probably make it easier to acquire federal funding. But she said it would be difficult to merge the two agencies because PSTA was created by a local bill and HART by general law.

“I was shocked and amazed at the self admitted subterfuge that was discussed getting around a referendum to merge PSTA and HART,” said Charlotte Greenbarg, referring to viewing that PSTA discussion.

HART officials pushed back strongly, saying that they have no intention of going along with merging the two agencies.

“Anyone who tries to interpret this as a pre-merger or merger, is, I don’t want to say hallucinating, but there’s no basis in fact for that,” said HART attorney David Smith, when asked if it was necessary to include Calvert’s “no merger” request in the MOU itself.

Board member Karen Jaroch also appeared uncomfortable with the language in the MOU, questioning the need for such “a big, binding agreement,” and expressed concerns about the trip to Tallahassee being planned by PSTA’s Miller next month.

“None of these words in this document speak to any type of merger, taxation. Nothing about going to Tallahassee. Nothing,” said an exasperated Sandy Murman, chairman of the committee. “It talks about cooperation, coordination, planning with our sister agency across the way that we may be able to get really good efficiencies.” And she repeated that “no one is talking about a regional tax hike.”

For her part, Eagan said that she would be out of state on February 7, and thus wouldn’t be accompanying Miller to Tallahassee on that day.

The board did agree to change some of the language in the latest draft proposal of the MOU, deleting “partnership opportunities” for “further collaboration.”

Board member Mike Suarez also said he didn’t see anything in the draft agreement that touches on merging. Suarez, the former HART board chair, was as adamant as anyone on the board in rejecting Clearwater state Senator Jack Latvala’s call several years ago for the agencies to merge.

Ultimately, two different studies were taken to determine if there were would be savings by consolidating. The agencies have worked on projects since then, but the proposed merger never happened.

Generally officials with PSTA have been more amenable to such a move. HART officials were never that enthusiastic about the idea.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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