Jefferson Transit delays sales tax request; decides not to compete with county measure
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Jefferson Transit General Manager Peggy Hanson, foreground, and Transit Board members listen to public testimony Tuesday. -- Photo by Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND -- The Jefferson Transit Authority Board decided Tuesday to pass on putting a proposed sales tax increase on the November ballot, fearing it would compete with a similar measure already planned by Jefferson County.

Instead, board members, who are all elected city and county officials, said they would consider putting the measure -- which would request voters approve a three-tenths of a percent sales tax increase, or 3 cents on every $10 purchase -- on the ballot in February.

"I don't think that we need to do this right now," said John Austin who, along with the other two Jefferson County commissioners, serves on the Jefferson Transit Board.

"If the voters see two sales tax increases on the ballot they could be easily confused. I think we should have one at a time."

The transit proposal -- a 0.3 percent sale tax increase -- is the same amount as the sales tax hike that Jefferson County commissioners plan to put on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

The county measure, if approved by voters in November, would raise county sales tax from the present 8.4 percent to 8.7 percent once it went into effect on April 1, 2011.

If the transit measure is on the February ballot and approved by voters, the total sales tax in Jefferson County would rise to 9 percent.

The proposed sales tax measure, which Jefferson Transit General Manager Peggy Hanson had presented as a resolution for approval at Tuesday's special meeting, would generate $1.134 million a year for the cash-strapped bus service.

Work furloughs

Because of declining revenue, Hanson has ordered 10-day unpaid employee furloughs annually and pay freezes for as many as 10 nonunion employees of the staff of about 30, including herself.

The sales tax measure was never called to a vote. Three of the five board members indicated they would not support it.

Said Catharine Robinson, chairwoman of the transit board and a Port Townsend City Council member:

"I am not going to call for the question because I can count."

The Jefferson County commission instructed its staff to craft the county ballot measure last Monday that would also spell out to voters what services the proposed tax increase would support, and plans to consider approval of setting the election next Monday to help smooth out an anticipated $900,000 deficit.

Forty percent of the county tax, called a public safety tax, would go to the city of Port Townsend.

Criticism

Kendall McKee, a Port Townsend resident who was one of about 40 people who attended the Transit meeting on Tuesday, criticized the county commissioners, saying they had mismanaged their budget and were guilty of a conflict of interest.

County Commissioner and Transit Board member David Sullivan responded to explain the county's action, and continued to do so even as Robinson asked him to confine his remarks to Transit issues.

"This is all related," Sullivan said. "This year, we need to address the bigger county issues. The Transit tax can wait a few months.

"There are a lot of rules as to which taxes can be on the ballot at what time," he added. "We can only put up the public safety tax on a primary or general election.

"The Transit tax can be presented any time."

Several favor Transit tax hike

Several people spoke in favor of putting the Transit measure on the November ballot.

One speaker, Gordon Neilson, said that it isn't true, as he said some think, that the only people using the public buses are underprivileged.

"I use public transit and I have a job," he said.

"Most of the people I see on the bus are going to and from work."

Caroline Culbertson of Port Hadlock said that if bus system service was cut back, "I would lose my job and I would lose my house."

"Pretty soon we will find out that sales tax and property tax is not the way to fund government," said Gloria Bram of Port Townsend.

"But I urge you to put this on the ballot and let the people decide whether they want this."

All the board members speaking against putting the tax on the November ballot said they would favor the next opportunity, which is February.

In order to get on the February ballot, the measure must be approved by Dec. 24.

If the Transit tax is presented to the voters in February it will most likely share a ballot with a levy lid lift proposal expected from the Port Townsend School District.

Not supporting buses

Several people in the audience said the Transit Board was not supporting the bus system, but was instead following individual agendas.

Deputy Mayor George Randals, a Transit Board member, said this perception cannot be avoided.

"We can't just take off one hat and put on another," he said.

"We have other responsibilities and are only on this board because we have those responsibilities."

Said Scarlett Sankey, a local resident: "Without a doubt, the Transit Board members who are on the county commission are advocating their own personal project, which is this public safety tax.

"They should think about doing their job as a Transit Board, which is to be an advocate for Transit."

Hanson understood this viewpoint but didn't agree.

"I think they face layers of needs and decisions," she said. "We are just one of many coming to them, to ask them to urge consideration of this proposal.

"So we stop, we reassess, we get back up and we do it again."

________

Jefferson County Reporter Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or charlie.bermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: August 04. 2010 12:02AM
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