The showdown is set.
A majority of city commissioners Tuesday night moved ahead on a city budget that includes no property tax funding for the city's beleaguered public transit system, but rather puts the fate of the bus system in the hands of sales tax voters in November.
Commissioners did not waiver from the sales tax plan, despite hearing nearly two hours of sometimes pointed public comment urging them to raise the city's property tax rate to ensure that the bus system would survive for at least another year.
"I'm someone who will lose my job if I lose the T," said Lance Fahy, a Lawrence resident who is visually impaired. "Anyone who says the T is not a vital service lacks the insight to lead a community."
Commissioners also were criticized for proposing to put two separate sales tax questions in front of the public in November: a 0.20 percent sales tax for public transit and a 0.30 percent sales tax for streets and infrastructure issues.
"The proposed sales tax as it is structured is wrong," Laura Routh said. "In my humble opinion, it is an overt attack on public transportation and an attack on the poor."
Four city commissioners - all but Commissioner Boog Highberger - agreed to publish the city's property tax rate for 2009 at 26.688 mills, which is one-tenth of a mill less than the 2008 levy. Highberger had argued to increase the mill levy to 29.208 mills to provide the needed property tax funding for the bus system, which is facing soaring costs related to fuel prices and aging buses.
A majority of city commissioners argued the sales tax is the best way to gauge public support for the bus system.
"I don't think putting the issue in front of the public is passing the buck," Commissioner Sue Hack said. "For every e-mail that I have gotten that supports the T, I have gotten another one that says, 'please do not raise my property taxes.'"
Mayor Mike Dever, who first proposed the idea of a transit sales tax, said the new sales tax would provide a more stable source of funding for public transportation. As proposed, the city would be legally obligated to spend the new sales tax money on the transit system for the 10-year duration of the sales tax. That would be different from property tax funding. The city has no legal mechanism to bind future commissions to spend property taxes to operate the T.
"We should all campaign hard for the future of the transit system so that we don't have three other commissioners come along and take it away," Dever said. "This way we won't have to have this meeting again next year."
Last year's budget also featured a major debate about the future of the city's public transit system. Commissioners last summer voted to reduce the hours of the T, but backed off the plan after a wave of T supporters lobbied City Hall.
Highberger and several members of the crowd said they were philosophically opposed to the commission risking the future of the T because they believe it is a core city service such as parks, roads and libraries. They also noted other controversial programs aren't subjected to a referendum-style vote.
"There is a million dollars in this budget for economic development," Highberger said. "Why isn't that up for a referendum?"
Commissioners at their Aug. 5 meeting are expected to debate the specific ballot language that would be presented to voters in November. That debate likely will include discussion of whether the transit and infrastructure sales tax should be combined into one ballot question. Both Highberger and Commissioner Mike Amyx said Tuesday that was their preference.