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Chamber opposes transit tax hike
The issue of a sales tax increase for Island Transit has prompted some of Whidbey Island’s chambers of commerce to enter the political fray.
With the Aug. 18 primary less than a month away, the Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce release a statement Monday advising its members to vote “no” on Island Transit’s proposal to increase its funding with a three-tenths of 1 percent increase in the sales tax.
Without the extra funding, the transit system will have to be pared by a third, supporters say. It is heavily dependent on sales tax receipts, which have plummeted in the recession.
Ballots will be mailed out the last week of July for the Aug. 18 primary in which the issue will be decided.
“This recommendation is not based on a desire to see the transit system fail, but as a way to protect our local businesses and encourage Island Transit to come back with a more appropriate proposal for the community that includes a combination of budget cuts, and alternative funding sources based on public input,” Board President Randy Bradford wrote in the recommendation sent to the Oak Harbor chamber membership.
The recommendation was based on member feedback from a survey conducted earlier this month, according to the news release that cited five major concerns over Island Transit’s proposal. The concerns include the implementation of a permanent sales tax increase to stave off a temporary reduction in revenue; having the highest sales tax in the region; Island Transit’s alleged lack of public input; and unspecified use of the additional tax funds collected, which the chamber estimates at more than $500,000 each year.
Of the chamber’s 480 members, 102 or roughly 21 percent responded to the nine-question survey.
While 48 percent of the poll participants agreed that their business “benefits directly from Island Transit and its services and is integral to the overall health of our local economy,” 56 percent reported that they would not support the proposal, which would raise Oak Harbor’s sales tax rate to 8.7 percent, making it one of the highest in the region. In comparison, Mount Vernon and Burlington’s sales tax rate is 8.2 percent and Bellingham’s is 8.5 percent.
Those who filled out the survey vetted mixed opinions.
“I do not support the sales tax increase. Aside from the potential for Oak Harbor businesses to lose sales to Burlington and Mount Vernon, with the current economic decline all layers of government must respond accordingly and cut back, just as the taxpayers have needed to do,” said one survey response. Another commenter lamented, “This will drive more people away from shopping in our area.”
On the other hand, a number of chamber members stood behind the proposed increase.
“Many of the people in our community depend on the transit. Our community cannot afford for anyone to lose their jobs or cut routes that are much needed,” wrote a chamber member. “Tax increase is inevitable if it doesn’t increase today it will increase in a later date. Why let the members of our community suffer when the inevitable is right around the corner?”
In response to a number of inquiries, the Central Whidbey Chamber also decided to toe the political waters and sent a one-question poll to its members this week.
“Our board was evenly split on the issue at our last meeting,” said Lynda Eccles, director of the Central Whidbey Chamber of Commerce. “I spoke with the board president and we decided it should go out to the members.”
Depending on the poll’s results, the Central Whidbey Chamber may decide to take a stance on the issue, Eccles said.
The Langley Chamber of Commerce will take a different approach, according to Board President Fred Lundahl. The chamber plans to educate its membership so they can make their own informed vote. An Island Transit representative will speak at the Langley Chamber meeting July 23. Lundahl said the board will not take a stance on the issue, but it took an unofficial poll of its members through informal chats and found “people are pretty split.”
“To be honest, we don’t have an opinion. We’re going to try very hard not to have an opinion,” he said. “The key is to have a conversation about it.”
Langley’s sales tax is currently 8.4 percent, the same as Oak Harbor’s.
The Clinton chamber doesn’t meet during July and August, so there’s been no opportunity to discuss the proposal with its members, said Chairwoman Sherryl Christie-Bierschenk, although a brief, four-question survey sent out this week drew a handful of passionate responses, both for and against the possible tax increase.
“We’re mostly made up of mom and pop shops, social service organizations and very small businesses that are either struggling or swamped right now because of the busy summer season,” she said.
The director of the Freeland chanmber was unavailable for comment.
Martha Rose, director of Island Transit was also unavailable for comment. She is on vacation until August 4.