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PSTA uses security grant to back Greenlight tax

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is using a federal grant to support the Greenlight Pinellas proposal.
"It's about this general idea of making the transportation system feel more safe and secure," said PSTA Executive Director Brad Miller of the ads.

Clearwater, Florida -- How can hundreds of thousands of dollars intended to protect bus riders from bombs and terrorists be used to promote a tax hike for increased bus and rail service in Pinellas County? That's what 10 Investigates wants to know.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is running "feel good ads" residents are paying for as part of a half-million dollar Department of Homeland Security grant to PSTA.

PSTA Executive Director Brad Miller said, "It's about this general idea of making the transportation system feel more safe and secure."

MORE:10 Investigates reviews spending, Greenlight Pinellas

According to Miller that's what the ads do, but PSTA's internal documents and the Homeland Security website say the grant "is one that encourages transit patrons to alert authorities if they see anything suspicious" and to "further promote public awareness of security issues related to public transportation."

When a reporter told Miller they didn't understand how the TV spots do that, he said, "I understand your question. The DHS program, the public outreach component is more than just about bombs and terrorism and police force."

Dr. David McKalip, an activist who publishes the Sunbeam Times blog and is opposing a proposed Pinellas transportation tax called Greenlight Pinellas, disagrees. "In my opinion they have crossed the line and they've abused taxpayer dollars," he said.

McKalip says the PSTA ads are, in reality, promoting the tax and that appears to violate a law sponsored by former state Sen. Charlie Justice.

RELATED: Senator wants PSTA spending reviewed

Justice, now a Pinellas County commissioner, says the law states, "No government entity should advocate or tell voters how to vote on an issue period. When we asked is it both federal or state? Justice told us, 'Any money.' "

McKalip argues, "The people around here know this money was supposed to be used to educate the public to stop bus bombings and instead PSTA abused it so they could promote their Greenlight Pinellas boondoggle."

And it is hard to argue with McKalip when looking at the three TV ads the grant financed since the only mention of security concerns is that PSTA cares about security, has a safe and secure service, and can "get people to their destination safely."

There is nothing about suspicious packages, nothing about terrorists and nothing about bombs. Miller was asked, "How can that be?"

Several times he replied to each of the inquires, "Well, Mike, that's a good question." "Mike, I think that's a good question." "Mike, I understand your question." "Mike, it's a good question."

That's what Miller kept saying as he tried justifying the feel good spots that are paid for with a half-million dollar grant and intended to stop terrorism but are actually directing viewers to the Greenlight Pinellas website.

However, Miller added, " I feel very comfortable how the money was used and would welcome any kind of review of that."

The Department of Homeland Security officials were contacted several times and asked if they approved, but the officials have not responded.

Meantime, the Government Accountability Office has reprimanded the department for poor oversight and wasteful spending on grants like this which are intended for public education on fighting terrorism, but aren't always used for that purpose.