Island Transit defends policies as tax goes to voters

Sandra Kuykendall, Island Transit
Sandra Kuykendall, Island Transit's administration and finance director, answers questions from the audience.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame / Whidbey News-Times

Martha Rose, director of Island County Transit, passed on an opportunity to speak with voters at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Instead, she followed through with her plans to vacation for two weeks on the Olympic Peninsula.

Sandra Kuykendall, Island Transit's administration and finance director, spoke on behalf of Rose at Tuesday night's forum.

"Martha Rose regrets that she couldn't be here," Kuykendall said, adding that Rose set her vacation plans one year in advance and had no way of knowing Island Transit would be in such dire financial straights. "She tried to get them to change the meeting date."

Kuykendell said state law bars her from specifically advocating a yea or nay vote, but that she'd do her best to answer audience questions.

"I have to follow a real fine line here," she said. "I cannot speak for or against the vote."

The League of Women Voters also invited the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce to speak on the issue in an effort to provide a balanced forum, but the chamber declined the invitation.

Earlier this month the chamber sent a recommendation to its members to vote against Island Transit's proposed three-tenths of 1 percent tax increase.

The forum began with Kuykendall's account of Island Transit's budgetary woes. She equated her workload to the equivalent of "two to four people" at other agencies with a pay of "10 percent less" than those who hold similar positions in larger city transit systems.

"We are very frugal with our money and we always have been," she said. "We've had a 34 percent decrease in funding over the last year and a half. It's spiraling down quickly. We do have a reserve, but those are going away really quickly. It's scary. Who knows where we're going to end up?"

Gerry Oliver, a City Council candidate, isn't convinced Island Transit is doing enough to raise funds before soliciting the county for a tax increase. He asked Kuykendall if Island Transit has considered rolling billboards.

But Kuykendall said the ads are just too offensive.

"The ads, first of all, would be so ugly," she said, countering that they'd only generate about $5,000 a year.

Oliver didn't seem convinced, adding that he'd be interested in purchasing an ad on the side of an Island Transit bus.

Sandi Peterson asked about employee benefits, suggesting that Island Transit may be able to save money if it asked employees to foot the bill for a higher percentage of their benefits, but Kuykendall said the difference wouldn't help much.

Kuykendall also touched on the issue of surplus vehicles, which Island Transit donates to community nonprofit organizations. Since 2003, Island Transit has given away a total of 65 old vehicles, including 26 buses and 29 vans, instead of putting the autos up for auction.

Island Transit chose to donate the vehicles instead of auctioning them off because the profit would have been so low.

By Kuykendall's estimates, the buses would only garner $1,500 apiece and the vans would average $800 at auction.

But some argue that every little bit helps. Twenty-six buses at $1,500 and 29 vans at $800 could have pulled in some $62,000 over the course of six years.

The issue of possible cuts also made the discussion. Should the vote get defeated, Island Transit would be forced to cut 30 percent of its services, she said.

Operations Manager Shawn Harris said Oak Harbor routes 3, 5, 7, 8 and 9 would likely be cut, meaning 29 to 39 operators may lose their jobs in addition to two administrative support staff. Island Transit currently employes 120 people.

"If those routes are cut, 125,000 to 169,000 cars will be back on the road," Kuykendall said, referring to yearly totals. "For those people who say, 'I don't use Island Transit, it doesn't affect me,' Well, it does."

Jim Pace has attended three Island Transit forums thus far and feels like his questions are being evaded.

"Do you plan to expand services with this tax increase?" he asked.

With the current budget crisis, Kuykendall said Island Transit just wants to maintain its current service level, but should the economy improve, services may expand.

"We're down 30 percent. That's going to give us 30 percent back. So no, we won't (increase services) at this time," she said.

"But if the economy improves, we absolutely plan to do that."

But Pace still wasn't happy with the 'yes' and 'no' answer.

"I'm all for Island Transit, but we still have no answers," he said, accusing Island Transit of trying to win the vote with scare tactics.

Aside from the polite grilling, Island Transit also heard from several well-wishers in the audience, including Helen Chatfield-Weeks, a 40-year Oak Harbor resident who helped Island Transit get rolling more than 24 years ago.

"It's the best thing that ever happened in Island County. We have the best transit system in the entire state of Washington," she said, looking around the room. "I just wish there were more people here that I could stand up and tell that too."

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