Transit tax hits bump in Oak Harbor

Island Transit took some heat from the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce leader Thursday in a meeting called to explain the bus system’s proposed sales tax increase.

Jill Johnson, executive director of the chamber, arrived to the public meeting with more than a dozen questions regarding the tax’s impact on local businesses; she plans to share with the answers with the chamber’s board of directors. The board will use the information to encourage or discourage chamber member’s support of the tax measure, Johnson said.

Island Transit Executive Director Martha Rose said the bus system desperately needs the additional three-tenths of 1 percent percent retail sales tax levy that will appear on the August 18 primary ballot. The tax would add 3 cents to a purchase worth $10.

Without the extra funds, she said, Island Transit will be forced to cut about 34 percent of its services.

Furthermore, Rose said Island Transit cannot afford to charge fares to raise the needed revenue. According to her calculations, the cost of the fare boxes, extra annual service hours and accounting, minus the revenue of a $1 fare, would place Island Transit $53,439,368 in the red over the course of 13 years.

“The cost of the equipment doesn’t just drop down from heaven,” she said in an exasperated tone to a small group of nine listeners.

Aside from the unrealistic cost to Island Transit, Rose said a fare would turn some riders off to the service.

“Check this: There’s a drop in Skagit and Whatcom transit systems that had a direct correlation with their fare increase,” she said.

However, Johnson questioned Rose’s logic.

“I could see if you were already paying, but you’re not charging anything now,” Johnson said. “Even if your ridership dropped, you’re getting one dollar more than you have.”

Albert Bowers, who attended both the Freeland and Oak Harbor meetings, was skeptical of Rose’s projections and countered that a fare would allow riders to pay directly for the service they use, keep non-riders from paying for a service they don’t use, and may prevent bus users he described as “trouble” from catching a free ride.

But Rose didn’t want to hear it.

“We’re not going to talk about that,” she said, putting an abrupt end to that thread of the conversation.

But Bowers and Rose continued to quarrel throughout the tense, two-hour meeting, clashing on everything from ridership to fares.

At one point Rose voiced an operatic-like Star-Trek theme to drown out Bowers’ gruff inquiries.

Johnson continued to hammer out her laundry list of questions in between Rose and Bower’s vocal tiffs, at one point suggesting advertising as one possible revenue generator.

Onboard advertisements are out of the question, said Rose, using Whatcom Transit’s failed advertising experiment as an example.

“It was such a headache and they finally got rid of it,” she said. “We have clearly looked at those avenues in the past, but in our environment, we are determined not to do advertising.”

Island Transit’s money problems, attributed to dwindling sales tax revenues due to the recession, came as a shock.

“It has hit us like a lead ball atop our heads,” Rose said as she described the Island Transit board’s last-minute decision to add the tax increase proposal to the August ballot.

“I forgot the primary had changed from September to August, at which time I went, ‘oh crap,’” she said.

Rose said the tax is necessary to maintain service and that she constantly gets calls to add more routes.

“If we get the tax, it’ll keep services healthy,” she said.

If the tax does not pass, Rose said Saturday service and some outlying routes would be cut immediately.

“I won’t get into specifics...” Rose said, “I don’t know what good it would do.”

The possible cuts do not sit well with avid bus rider Bobbie Massengale, who would like to see the addition of Sunday routes and later hours.

If voters approve the tax, Johnson said she would be concerned that shoppers may go off-island to purchase big-ticket items like cars to avoid the county’s sales tax. The loss of local business could lead to a further decrease in Island Transit’s share of retail tax revenue, she said.

“Island Transit’s No. 1 priority is to have people on the bus and to be fully self-fundable,” Rose replied.

When asked if she’d be prepared to ask for another tax increase if this proposal fails, Rose said there’s not a chance.

“I’m not going to go through this every year,” she said with a sigh.

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