Bus system asks for tax dollars

"The same Island County voters who cut local transit funding in November will be asked to put some of it back in May.The Island Transit Board of Directors decided Wednesday to put a proposal for a 0.3 percent sales tax increase on the May 16 ballot. The increase, which would add 30 cents to every $100 purchase, will help replace transit operating money lost last November when Initiative 695 eliminated the state's Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.Though all five members of the board agreed that the proposal should be put before the voters, two members, County Commissioner Mac McDowell and Oak Harbor City Councilwoman Sheilah Crider, said it should be on a September ballot rather than in May.They weren't alone.Members of Citizens for Better Schools, a group trying to pass a $2.6-million Oak Harbor School District levy on May 16, told the board that having both a property tax increase and a sales tax increase on the same ballot might hurt the chances of passing either one. The group's co-chairman, Lynn Goebel, said her levy group had been working for more than a year to build a strong campaign and she questioned whether transit backers could do the same in less than two months.I'm concerned that you're not organized enough, said Goebel, pointing out that a poorly executed campaign might confuse voters.South Whidbey resident Rufus Rose also questioned whether 45 days was enough time to give voters the information they need to make an informed vote. He said the board should look at all of its alternatives before turning to tax increases. I-695 showed that voters are upset about taxes and government, said Rose, adding that the current state Legislature's ongoing struggle to sort out the problem and adopt a state budget is fueling the ire.Olympia isn't helping us. It's making the taxpayers even more angry, he said.Transit Boardmember Neil Colburn agreed.They're making an honest attempt to redefine dysfunction, he said. For all I know they could still be in session next September.McDowell said Island Transit might be able to shift funds from future bus purchases and budget reserves to operations. That, coupled with whatever money the Legislature eventually decides to throw Island Transit's way, might keep things going until September.But Island Transit employees reminded the board that the situation is already bad and any delays will only make it worse. Phyllis Brett, the agency's service development manager, said Island Transit has lost five drivers just in the last two months and replacements are hard to hire because of the uncertainty of future funding. Stress levels are high among remaining employees, she said, because of potential cuts.Island Transit Director Martha Rose said that without a quick solution, there could be more than a 50-percent reduction in countywide bus service by the end of July.County Commissioner Bill Thorn, the transit board's chairman, said that waiting until September to submit the tax proposal would mean that the agency would have to wait until December or January to get any money, assuming that it got voter approval. He said that, at best, state legislators will only supply short-term funding that would replace only about two-thirds of the money lost under I-695.This does not solve our problem. We need to seek our own relief, he said. Thorn said he thinks the transit tax and the school levy can actually help each other by riding on the same ballot.The friends of transit are the friends of schools, he said. Boardmember Phil Williamson, a Coupeville Town Councilman, said he sympathized with the levy backers but saw no good alternative.We're going to wait forever if we wait to be on a ballot by ourselves, he said.Last month, the board had the opportunity to place the issue on an April ballot, but that, too, would have coincided with a school levy request, this one from South Whidbey schools, which is going for its second try at passage. The September ballot is already likely to have at least one other tax request, a building bond measure from Whidbey General Hospital.Following the board's vote approving the May 16 date, Brett said transit employees could breathe a little easier. Though their fate remains in the hands of the voters, she said they are happy that something will be decided sooner than later.At least we'll know, said Brett.She said the combination of cutbacks, stress and uncertainty would have likely raised safety concerns in the agency if the current situation had been allowed to continue through the summer. Citizens for Better Schools co-chairman Kathy Chalfant said Oak Harbor school levy proponents will now have to explain both the school and transit issues as they talk to voters during the campaign. She remained optimistic.We're going to pass this levy, she said. Now they just go hand in hand."

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