Pierce Transit supporters already have a task on their hands: persuade recession-fatigued and tax-wary voters to increase their sales tax support for the agency by 50 percent to preserve bus service.
But this winter they face another obstacle not often seen in local tax elections: a small but organized opposition intent on defeating the proposal to raise the local sales tax by three-tenths of 1 percent.
Ballots are already out in the all-mail election. They must be returned or postmarked by Feb. 8.
The agency, which covers nearly all of Pierce County and carried some 18 million riders on its local and Sound Transit buses in 2009, says the money is a must-have to preserve the service it has and add it to here and there. Without a tax hike to make up recessionary losses, service will be slashed by 35 percent over the next year, officials say.
Critics complain that Pierce Transit is top-heavy and not well-managed and should find more ways to cut expenses and refine operations.
Save Our Buses, the pro campaign, is backed by the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, the Tacoma School District, the Pierce County Labor Council, the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club and many other groups.
People in the business of public transit – unions, a bus manufacturer, contractors and workers – are the biggest contributors.
Of the $88,286 in donations reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission as of Friday, $29,000 came from the Amalgamated Transit Union through its national headquarters and locals around the Northwest, records show.
The campaign’s top contributors, according to figures available on the PDC website:
Amalgamated Transit Union, Washington, D.C., $10,000.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 758, Tacoma, $10,000.
Gillig, a Hayward, Calif., bus manufacturer, $10,000.
First Transit, a Pierce Transit contractor, $10,000.
The campaign’s top individual contributor is Pierce Transit CEO Lynne Griffith, who’s donated $1,750, according to PDC records available Friday.
That the transit union is among the biggest contributors is to be expected, said Don McKnight, president and business agent for ATU Local 758, which represents Pierce Transit’s drivers and many of its other workers.
“Our concern is twofold,” he said. “Obviously we have a membership base that is dependent upon the (Pierce Transit) jobs. … And there are an awful lot of people who are dependent on those buses.”
Save Our Buses campaign manager Justin Leighton called the union contributions “pretty common with something like this.” But he also pointed out that several area businesses that depend on buses to get their employees to work also are contributors.
And there’s more than money behind the campaign, Leighton said. Dozens of volunteers are staffing phone banks. The campaign has made about 7,000 calls and plans to make at least 7,000 more, he added.
And some 50,000 pieces of campaign-funded mail went out to likely voters with the message, “Put your pennies to work!”
Supporters point out that people who don’t have cars or are too young, too old or handicapped and can’t drive need public transit the most. Others use buses to save money, ease congestion and help the environment.
Propel Insurance donated $2,500 to Save Our Buses because the company and its workers have embraced public transit.
More than half the company’s 130 downtown Tacoma employees take an alternative form of transportation – bus, train, car pool, van pool – to get to work in the Wells Fargo Building every day, said human resources director Patti Sutton.
Now, she’s hearing from employees who won’t be able to take the bus if service is cut.
“I would hate to see it go backwards,” she said. Keeping buses on the roadways “is the right thing to do.”
Pierce Transit officials acknowledge that asking voters to raise taxes while the economy is still climbing out of a recession is difficult.
The measure needs only a simple majority to pass. But consider that on the November statewide ballot, more than two-thirds of Pierce County voters trounced a proposed high-earner state income tax and supported a rollback of candy, water and soda pop taxes.
The complexion of this election colored by the recession is very different from one nine years ago in which the agency sought and won a three-tenths of 1 percent increase in the sales tax.
In 2002, the Committee to Preserve Pierce Transit raised more than $75,000, again with huge backing from unions.
But there was no apparent organized opposition, no “against” statement in the voter pamphlet as there is this time.
And in a rarely seen bit of local politics, some of the opposition in 2011 is coming from other governmental agencies. Last week, the Bonney Lake City Council unanimously voted to oppose the measure, saying the transit service the city’s residents get doesn’t equal what they put into the agency.
On Tuesday, the Pierce County Council is scheduled to consider a resolution proposed by Councilman Dick Muri, R-Steilacoom, urging voters to turn down the tax increase.
It’s more common to see votes like the one taken by the Tacoma City Council last week, which unanimously endorsed Proposition 1.
Leighton says he cares less about resolutions from governments than about endorsements and donations from businesses who believe in the mission.
On the other side, No on Prop 1 committee member Pete Chamberlain says he thinks the message that the transit agency can do more with less will resonate with voters who’ve had to cut back on their own expenses.
“Hopefully our argument will stand on its own merit,” the Lakewood resident said.
“We know we’re going to be outspent,” he added. “We’re just a bunch of citizen activists who thought this (Proposition 1) was the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
He points to an informational mailer Pierce Transit sent out as an example of a place where money could have been saved. Though the $72,000 cost of the fact sheet is allowed under state election law, Chamberlain called it “campaigning on the taxpayers’ dime.”
Because the No on Prop 1 campaign expects to raise less than $5,000 with no donation greater than $500, it’s not subject to the same “report everything” disclosure requirements of a bigger committee. But its books must be open for inspection if someone wants to look.
Treasurer Eric Kuester said the campaign has raised about $1,700 to date “and spent it all.”
The transit union’s McKnight complained that the anti-Prop 1 committee’s decision to use the “mini reporting” option for campaign contributions means its donor list isn’t available on the PDC website where it can be easily viewed.
“It doesn’t even smell of fairness,” he said.
But he added that he’d rather talk about the issue than the campaign:
“Quite frankly, some people are struggling,” he said. “I see transit as an opportunity. When all else fails, people go to the buses until they can get back on their feet again. … If it doesn’t exist, then I guess we end up people putting people back on the streets again hitchhiking.”
Kris Sherman: 253-597-8659 firstname.lastname@example.org
Pierce Transit Proposition 1
What’s on the ballot: A measure to raise the sales tax within the Pierce Transit service area by three-tenths of 1 percent. It would take the local transit sales tax from 0.6 to 0.9 percent. Or, looked at another way, from six cents on every $10 purchase to nine cents on every $10 purchase.
Deadline to vote: Feb. 8.
Information on voting: www.co.pierce.wa.us/elections.
About Pierce Transit: www.piercetransit.org.
About Save Our Buses: www.approveprop1.ning.com.
About No On Prop 1: www.piercetransitfacts.com.