A new plan has emerged to have two city sales tax elections in November, with one perhaps determining whether the city's financially struggling bus system survives.
Commissioner Rob Chestnut is proposing a 0.15-percent sales tax to fund all operations for the T and the city's related paratransit bus service. He's also proposing a separate 0.35-percent sales tax to fund street repairs, improve sidewalks, and to build other infrastructure projects that may be needed to attract jobs to the community.
The public transit vote is shaping up to be a referendum on whether to continue operating the bus system, which is expected to require an additional $1 million in local funding in 2009.
"Because the costs have gone up so dramatically, and it appears they will go up more, I think we absolutely need some sort of barometer on whether the public still supports this," Chestnut said.
Commissioners are scheduled to discuss sales tax issues at their 6:35 meeting tonight at City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.
Under Chestnut's plan, the sales tax would be split into two separate votes. In other words, residents could choose to vote for the infrastructure tax but not the transit tax, or vice versa.
The plan has evoked a variety of opinions from Chestnut's fellow commissioners.
Commissioner Sue Hack said she would prefer that the commission spend its time looking for a way to create a transit system that it can afford, or else decide to get out of the transit business. Either way, she thinks the transit system is in trouble.
"My personal opinion is, I don't believe it will survive in its current form," said Hack, who said she could not envision the commission supporting a property tax increase for the T.
Property tax relief
Chestnut's plan would not provide enough money to expand the T's service. Instead, it would simply allow it to maintain existing service levels. The proposal, however, would free up about $1.05 million in property tax funds that are now used for the public transit system.
Chestnut proposes using part of the $1.05 million to reduce the city's property tax rate by about 1 percent - or 0.24 mills. The remainder of the money he would use to provide an extra $125,000 per year in funding for library operations, and increasing the city's bond and interest fund, which has been dipping into long-held reserves to make bond payments.
City Commissioner Boog Highberger - a longtime opponent of sales taxes but a supporter of the transit system - said he would want to tweak Chestnut's proposal before supporting it.
"But I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there may be no other way to preserve our transit service without a voter-approved sales tax," Highberger said.
Highberger, though, said he would want any sales tax proposal to be large enough to expand public transit service rather than simply to keep it operating at current levels. He also said he does not support having two separate sales tax votes. He would want the infrastructure tax and the transit tax combined into one vote.
"I think it has a higher chance of passage if we combine them," Highberger said.
Commissioner Mike Amyx also said he wanted one sales tax vote rather than two. He said both issues involve transportation, and thus should be wrapped into one vote. Amyx also said he wants to pursue more talks with Kansas University about a true merger of the city and university bus systems.
"Both bodies need to get together and say, 'Is there a way to do this?' I'm sure there is because other communities have done it," Amyx said of university communities that operate joint bus systems.
Mayor Mike Dever - who in April broached the subject of using a sales tax to pay for the transit system - praised Chestnut's proposal as a good starting point.
He said he wants commissioners to think hard about what would happen if the transit sales tax failed. He said discontinuing transit operations may be the only option, but he said the community may want to continue funding the paratransit service, which provides door-to-door service for the disabled and others who qualify.
"I just want to make sure that we think through any unintended consequences," Dever said.