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- Bus system's fate may rest on sales tax (05-06-08)
- Commissioner Rob Chestnut's sales tax proposal
- City optimistic as sales tax collections 'look great right now' (04-11-08)
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It became clearer Tuesday that the city's financially struggling public transit system is in a fight for its survival.
City commissioners at their weekly meeting generally agreed that voter approval of a new sales tax to fund public transportation is the most likely way to save the system, but stopped far short of approving a ballot issue for November and left many key details unanswered.
But just as important, commissioners also started talking about life without a public transit system.
"A vote on the T system, no matter how it is structured, is really an ultimatum vote," City Commissioner Mike Amyx said, meaning that a vote for a sales tax would preserve the T and a vote against a sales tax would lead to its demise.
No commissioner disagreed with that assessment. That's in part because only Commissioner Boog Highberger expressed any interest in raising property taxes - an act that doesn't take voter approval - to save the T. Comments by other commissioners made it clear that a property tax increase is highly unlikely to save the transit system, which is estimated to need an extra $1 million in funding to operate current service levels in 2009.
Amyx actually asked staff members for an estimate of how much money the city would free up for the 2009 budget if public transit operations were discontinued. The answer: About $1.3 million in a budget that is expected to be among the more challenging in recent memory.
"That is a question that has to be asked," Amyx said.
Ultimately, voters may be asked whether they would support a new sales tax to fund public transportation. A proposal by Commissioner Rob Chestnut calls for a 0.15 percent sales tax to fund transit operations. He's also calling for a separate 0.35 percent sales tax to fund street and infrastructure projects. Both sales tax questions would be on the November general election ballot, and both would require a separate vote.
Having separate votes for the sales tax issues was a point of contention among commissioners. Amyx and Highberger both have said they want one vote for both the infrastructure and transit sales tax.
Chestnut and Mayor Mike Dever both said they were still strongly leaning toward a stand-alone vote on the transit service.
"My desire on public transit is to allow the public to identify whether this is a priority," Dever said. "I feel like a direct question will get a direct response."
Commissioners ultimately decided to have staff members prepare a report outlining possible pros and cons related to having the votes combined or separate. Commissioners have until late September to decide whether to put sales tax issues on the November ballot.