Suburban communities around Pierce County have a message for Pierce Transit: Don’t cut our bus service, or we may take our tax money elsewhere.
A dozen officials from five Pierce County cities and towns are researching how they might cut ties with Pierce Transit in response to proposed route cuts next year.
Representatives from Bonney Lake, Buckley, Orting, Steilacoom and DuPont met last week to discuss the possibility of “de-annexing” from Pierce Transit.
So far the group is just researching its options, officials said. But they agree their residents shouldn’t pay for service they don’t receive.
“We pay taxes, and I’ve been here 10 years and I haven’t seen a bus at all,” said Orting City Councilman Stanley Holland. “It’s time they (at Pierce Transit) recognize the small cities. They need to know we mean business.”
Pierce Transit officials say that unless they get more revenue, they may have to eliminate bus service to North Tacoma, Edgewood, Milton, Buckley and Steilacoom next year.
They would also cut routes serving Bonney Lake, Gig Harbor, University Place, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Fife, while eliminating dial-a-ride service in Orting.
In Bonney Lake, the cuts would eliminate all local routes, leaving only a commuter route connecting to the Sumner Sound Transit station.
Seniors would be unable to run errands or reach doctor’s offices in town, said City Councilwoman Laurie Carter, while many teenagers would struggle to get to their part-time jobs.
“They need to be able to get to those jobs and to things that keep them busy,” Carter said. “Going to the park, things like that.”
In DuPont, what little bus service residents get is funded through Sound Transit, said Mayor Tamara Jenkins. Adding local routes would most benefit residents of Patriot’s Landing, a veterans’ retirement community, she said.
“They would like to be able to take a bus to go to the grocery store,” Jenkins said. “We do not have any of that local service, and we pay a significant amount of taxes.”
Pierce Transit now receives 0.6 percent of local sales tax revenues as its primary source of funding.
Orting, Bonney Lake, DuPont and Buckley paid Pierce Transit a combined $3.1 million in sales taxes in 2009, according to the state Department of Revenue.
That amounts to about 5 percent of the $61.7 million in sales tax revenue Pierce Transit collected from its entire service area last year. The area includes 16 jurisdictions in Pierce County and several unincorporated areas, as well as the Pierce County portions of Auburn and Pacific.
State law dictates how members of a transit agency’s tax district can withdraw from the district, but the city officials who met Thursday were unsure exactly how it would work.
According to state code, two or more cities in the service area can prompt a public hearing on whether to change tax district boundaries. The County Council could also prompt a hearing by passing a resolution.
Who approves the new boundaries was less clear to the group that met Thursday. State law makes reference to a public transportation improvement conference made up of local officials, much like the group that convened to form Pierce Transit in 1979.
Language in the state code implies that the transportation conference is a body other than the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners.
Some city officials last week thought that if they pulled out of Pierce Transit, they could use their residents’ sales tax funds to hire a private bus company or start a new public transit agency.
In Bonney Lake, residents paid Pierce Transit about $1.9 million in sales taxes last year, according to the state Department of Revenue.
Bonney Lake City Councilman Dan Swatman said that amount of money should be sufficient to pay for transit in the city of about 16,000 people.
“Any thinking person could say you could probably run bus service in Bonney Lake for $2 million a year,” Swatman said. “They should be able to provide us with some level of service. Otherwise, leave us our $2 million.”
Pierce Transit spokesman Lars Erickson said the deep cuts are only one option Pierce Transit is considering. The transit board is also looking at asking voters to approve a sales tax increase of 0.3 percent.
That increase would raise about $31 million, Erickson said, which would allow the agency to provide roughly the same total bus service hours per year as it does now. However, some local routes could still change.
Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee, who is chairman of the Pierce Transit board, said he thinks talks of de-annexation are premature given how early the board is in its budget process.
The transit board will decide in June whether to ask voters for a tax increase, he said.
“These conceptual plans most likely will not be a reality,” Lee said Friday. “I’m hopeful that folks will consider a larger base of support for Pierce Transit. Then we won’t have to consider service reductions.”
IN OTHER AREAS
Other cities facing cuts have not been involved in discussions about de-annexing from Pierce Transit.
“We haven’t given it any thought,” said Gig Harbor City Administrator Rob Karlinsey.
In Edgewood, city officials are concerned about losing their bus service, so they are writing Pierce Transit officials a letter, Edgewood Mayor Jeff Hogan said.
“We’re just starting to look at it,” Hogan said.
The group of cities that met Thursday is drafting its own letter asking Pierce Transit officials to meet with them next month.
In the meantime, the cities’ attorneys will research what it would take to break away from Pierce Transit.
Ultimately, it may work for the transit agency to simply redistribute some of its existing service in the suburbs, said Steilacoom Mayor Ron Lucas.
He said his town, which could see its service eliminated next year, probably gets more buses than it needs right now.
“I think a lot of the communities are looking for something different,” Lucas said. “They’re not looking for service every hour on the hour. We’re talking about moving certain packages of people at certain times – not 24-7 bus service.”
Lucas said he thinks Pierce Transit needs to think about serving the growing communities in East Pierce County instead of concentrating service in Tacoma and Lakewood.
Buckley Mayor Pat Johnson agreed.
“If I’m not going to get bus service at all, I don’t care about Lakewood,” Johnson said, adding, “I don’t need a 40-person bus right now. I could just use a van.”
Melissa Santos: 253-552-7058