Council dodges transit tax issue

Published on Thu, Jan 31, 2002 by Meg Olson

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Council dodges transit tax issue

By Meg Olson

Blaine city council members hemmed and hawed but narrowly decided to sidestep the issue of a tax increase to support county transit. A motion made by John Liebert for city council to not take a position on a proposed three-tenths of a cent sales tax increase on the ballot in March passed by one vote.

“If we make no resolution it says nothing,” said council member Bruce Wolf, who voted for Liebert’s non-resolution with Bonnie Onyon and Ken Ely. “I personally support it but it’s not smart politically to do it.” Marsha Hawkins, Mike Myers and Dieter Schugt voted against the motion. “It says as a city that we don’t support it,” Hawkins said.

The Whatcom Transportation Authority (WTA) is proposing to increase the county sales tax from 7.9 to 8.2 percent to make up for the shortfall in revenue that came in the wake of the voter-approved elimination of the motor vehicle excise tax in 1999. “What we’re asking for is a way to make up funding lost from initiative 695,” said WTA director of service development Rick Gordon.

The WTA lost 44 percent of its annual revenue – $5.7 million in 2000 – after 695 was adopted. It has been keeping buses rolling since then with limited service reductions by drawing down reserve dollars and hoping the state legislature would find another funding source for public transit. To date, they have not.

“In the absence of legislative action to replace the funds, our community and its citizens are approaching a decision point,” reads a WTA service reduction plan. In a March 12 special election, voters will be asked to approve the proposed sales tax hike. If they don’t, Gordon said, reserve dollars will run out in 2003 and cuts outlined in the service reduction plan will go into effect. There would be more cuts down the road. “In 2007, based on current financial projections, there would need to be much deeper cuts,” Gordon said.

Blaine would see less cuts under the proposed plan than many other communities in the county, where a 30 to 60 percent reductions in fixed routes are proposed. “There’s already a fairly reduced level of service in Blaine,” Gordon said. There would be no changes to the 70X Blaine bus route but Dial-a-Ride service in Blaine and Birch Bay would be cut by more than 50 percent. Specialized service for people with disabilities would be eliminated on nights and weekends.

Myers, who represents Blaine on the WTA board of directors, urged fellow council members to support the sales tax increase to keep the WTA rolling. “It’s a service that operates efficiently and deserves our support,” he said. Marsha Hawkins, who has previously represented Blaine on the WTA board, said cuts to bus service would hurt people who have few other options to get around. “It’s mostly used by the elderly and young people,” she said. “A sales tax increase is a fair way that taxes everybody. We can’t afford to go backwards on transit.”

Hawkins was particularly concerned with proposed cuts to service for the disabled. “I have a family member who uses it and I’d hate to see it taken away from her,” she said. ‘It’s the only way she can get around.”
While other council members voiced varying degrees of support for public transit, there was a reluctance to give the appearance of supporting higher taxes. “I realize we have to subsidize public transportation to a level but I’m also against raising taxes in a recession,” Wolf said. “I’m disappointed ridership pays such a low percentage of costs. I’d favor seeing that go up and less of a tax increase.” It costs 50 cents to ride the bus in Whatcom County and Myers said it costs the WTA $2.50 to pay for the trip..
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