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The T riding without a safety net
It was the plan that didn't float. City Commissioner Boog Highberger at Tuesday evening's City Commission meeting made one more effort to create a backup plan to ensure that the city's public transit system will operate in 2009, even if voters reject a two-tenths of one percent sales tax initiative that likely will be on the ballot in November. Here's what he proposed: ¢ Step 1 - Raise the 2009 mill levy by 2.52 mills. ¢ Step 2 - Continue with plans to put the 0.20 percent sales tax question on the ballot. ¢ Step 3 - Let voters decided on the sales tax issue. City commissioners would then react in one of two ways. If voters reject the sales tax, the 2.52 mills of property tax collections would be used to fund the city's bus system. If voters approve the sales tax for public transit, the 2.52 mills would be used to eliminate the 12 percent water rate increase that residents are slated to pay in 2009. "It was really the only mechanism I could find to refund that money generated by the increase in the mill levy," Highberger said. Highberger's plan, though, didn't win a single vote of support. The first step in Highberger's plan was a fatal one. No commissioner, other than Highberger, has shown any support for increasing the city's property tax rate in 2009. So, for the time being, it looks like the T will be riding without a safety net. But that could change. Mayor Mike Dever at the end of Tuesday's meeting said he does have an interest in creating a backup plan for public transportation if voters reject the sales tax. But he's not particularly interested in creating it now, he said. "We need to have a plan if it fails, but right now I want to focus on having this succeed," Dever said. Dever said he is concerned that too much talk of what will happen if the sales tax fails will create a self-fulfilling prophesy of the sales tax failing. The big question, however, is how much ability the city would have to create a backup plan under the budget that they're poised to pass. The budget commissioners are moving forward on doesn't have any property tax funding for the T, and it is not as if the city can simply increase the mill levy after the November election. Property tax bills already will have been sent, and the city will have lost its ability to collect any additional property taxes at that point. But Dever has said there are some reserve funds the city has available that could operate a very limited public transit system for about a year. And, of course, the city could choose to cut other services and use the savings to fund the T, although it likely would have to be a scaled down version as well. But if that is what commissioners are planning to do, they didn't tip their hand Tuesday. "If you really believe the T should be sustained, you really should support a sales tax for it," Commissioner Sue Hack told the crowd.