Outspoken islanders who attended the meeting were firm in the fact that tolls, not a tax, should fund the project.
While the chairman of the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority, David Hayes, tried to explain that the results of the survey sent out to island taxpayers were met with more equal response, the audience was having none of it. They called the survey confusing, and said it didn’t accurately portray the feelings of all island residents.
Because the authority is a state agency, they can only propose a tax referendum to registered voters on the island on the November ballot. Many people who said they never received a survey but are property owners, are not registered voters here. Therefore, they would not be able to receive a survey.
Out of the 1,435 surveys sent out to all of the registered voters within the Gasparilla Island Bridge Authority district, only about 50 percent came back. The authority did not hear from 37% of the voters and 13% were undeliverable.
It was reported that 52% of voters who responded to the poll were against the tax, and 48% were for it. In a further breakdown, 30% favored the .3 mill tax and 24% favored the .55 tax.
In all, 376 were not in favor of any tax. They either didn’t check any box at all, or wrote on the survey that they were opposed.
Even with the numbers presented from the survey being labeled a “horse race,” those who attended the meeting said they didn’t understand why the referendum was still going on the November ballot.
In a show of hands called for by Hayes, only two people in the room supported the tax. They were both year-round residents who said they stood by local businesses, and didn’t want to see them and their patrons footing even higher toll rates.
One of them, Jane Caple, said, “I voted with the tax. I live here full time and have to frequently cross the bridge. I’m still willing to vote for a tax increase, even though I’m widowed and have a big house. It will be a struggle for me, but I’m willing to do it to support the restaurants and services I use on the island.”
Many residents who spoke up at the meeting had a different message: Why pay a tax to subsidize day trippers? At least two residents once again addressed the subject of “Hell’s Angels crossing the bridge,” saying that it wasn’t high on their priority list.
Jonathan Hart of Wilbur Smith (the company that conducted the traffic studies) was present at the meeting, and said that while the authority would not get into a tight spot automatically by drastically raising tolls instead of utilizing tax money, the amount of people who cross the bridges as “day trippers” would immediately be affected.
“What is our tolerance for losing day trippers, or making businesses consolidate trips so they don’t have to go across so many times?” he asked. “What is the island ready to live with? This does not affect the people who are thinking of relocating to the island. No one is going to say ‘The toll is too high, forget it. I won’t buy a house there.’ They just wont come here for the day. Even if you lose 100% of your day trippers and everyone else who crosses the bridge pays a $10 toll to do so, your revenue will still go up and you will pay for the bridges. But what are the consequences you’re willing to pay?”
George Baker, an island resident and former GIBA board member, said that traffic this year in his opinion has been horrendous. He is against a tax.
“Traffic is the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I don’t have any idea why we’d want to subsidize Hell’s Angels and everyone else coming across the bridge.”
Another resident, Tony Ackerman, said he felt that if the tax survey had been clearer, the authority would have gotten more negative responses to the tax.
“If you don’t put forth some sort of referendum you’re telling a huge group of people we weren’t listening to them,” Hayes explained. “I wont be the person to say to those in favor of a tax that they don’t count. If we put a referendum forward voters will have two choices, yes or no. If we don’t, it will short change those who want a tax.”
After much discussion from the audience and the board, a vote was taken that came back 3-2 in favor of putting the tax referendum on the November ballot. Hayes and board members Dick Ryan and Ginger Watkins were in favor of the referendum. Board members Jerry Lusk and Lee Majors were against it.
The November referendum will offer two boxes to check. One will be for a .3 mill tax, the other will be for no tax at all.
Another issue addressed by the board was brought up by 13th Street resident Donald Pais. He said that he had been in contact with other beachfront residents who were concerned about the high density of traffic parking on the beach access roads, and asked the board to approve a 25-trip minimum on discount passes. He also asked that an expiration date be put on those passes. The reason for this, he explained, was to decrease the amount of people using the passes to abuse them.
“I chatted with some of the folks, and they like parking on access roads because they avoid the charges at the state beaches,” Pais said. “Residents don’t even have the ability to have visitors over, because there’s no place to park. But that isn’t even the issue that’s germane. What is, is that passes are being abused. People are buying a pass and sharing it with everyone in the neighborhood.”
The board passed a motion to approve a 25-trip minimum on a $97.50 pass, with an expiration date of one year from the date of purchase.
The board also approved Drew Tucker to be a new advisory member to replace Ed Reefe.
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