Voter-approved tax hike keeps Island Transit stable

Island Transit is humming along, thanks to Island County voters’ approval of the transit tax increase in August.

“Thank God for the vote,” said Martha Rose, Island Transit executive director. “We’re able to sustain our service and that is essential.”

The “yes” vote allows Island Transit to collect nine-tenths of one percent of Island County’s sales tax revenue. Although it may not sound like a large sum, the 2010 figure is estimated to bring in $7,100,000, about $2 million more than last year.

Robert Gilman, Island Transit board vice chair, said at Friday’s board meeting that the additional revenue allows Island Transit to remain in a holding pattern “while many others are in decline.”

Island Transit’s routes will remain the same in 2010.

Although Island Transit employees will not receive a cost of living adjustment, or COLA, this year, they’ll still get raises based on “longevity and merit,” Rose said. The pay increase is a way to ensure that Island Transit maintains a competitive edge, she said, calling it “a built-in step increase.”

Operation wages are expected to increase 6 percent from 2009 to 2010, which is a difference of $152,522. Paratransit wages will increase by 3 percent, the equivalent of $14,936, and Camano operations wages will jump by 20 percent, or by $139,104. Administrative wages appear to decrease by 16 percent, although Rose said it was due to “carry-over,” not an actual wage reduction.

“The board asked Martha not to add a COLA increase this year,” said Bob Clay, Island Transit board chair.

Rose estimated that in Island Transit’s 22-year history, the employees have only lost out on a COLA increase about five times.

Citizen Jim Pace reminded Rose and the board of public skepticism at a budget meeting last Friday.

“I still believe that Island Transit can conduct their business and remain in their budget,” he said.

“What’s going to happen if you don’t reach $7 million?” Pace asked Rose and the board in reference to the amount of money that’s budgeted to be generated through Island County’s 2010 sales tax. “If we don’t reach the budget, then we need to look at the cutbacks.”

Island Transit will have to scale back - or find another source of income - if it cannot reach its targeted sales tax revenue because it’s already maxed out the amount of sales tax it can receive.

Rose agreed that now is a “time for caution.”

“The core of what I’m trying to do is to maintain Island Transit as a viable organization,” she said.

Since the 1990s, employees began paying 15 percent of their medical insurance costs. Prior to that, they didn’t contribute, she said. Rose shared the story to illustrate the employees’ dedication to maintaining Island Transit.

Now others may have to step up to the plate, she said.

“As the employees decided they wanted to kick in to help with the medical costs, I think we will be creative with some solutions to get the commuters to contribute,” she said.

Rose said Island Transit is exploring the possibility of a, “Go green, be fit. Friends of Island Transit,” program to solicit credit card donations.

“We’re looking at all sorts of ways,” she said.

The budget is actually more of a road map that’s re-visited every month, Clay told Pace.

“Hopefully these items were computed conservatively,” he said. “If it takes a big nose dive then we’re back at the table.”

If the numbers hold steady, Island Transit hopes to re-build its capital reserve fund, which has taken a beating from today’s rough economic climate.

The budget process isn’t easy, Rose said,

“It’s a job we do with a smile,” she said. “Even though sometimes we’d like to frown.”

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