Voters said no when Pierce Transit officials asked for increased funding last year. Now the same sales tax increase is back on the ballot.
Last time, officials said they’d have to reduce service without the additional three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax, and they did. They eliminated about 200,000 of Pierce Transit’s 622,000 service hours and got rid of special service to events such as the Puyallup Fair.
Cuts this time around – if voters don’t approve Proposition 1 on Nov. 6 – would mean no weekend service, no buses after 7 p.m. and longer waits, officials say. On some routes, daily trips would be cut almost in half.
“We’re just working to keep Tacoma as a place where people have access to jobs and mobility to get around to those jobs and to shopping and appointments, and keeping Tacoma a place where people want to move and will thrive,” said Kate Whiting, manager for Restore Transit Now, which has raised $58,000, much of it from transit unions.
Kara Tennison catches the bus about four times a day to get to the East Side where she lives to Tacoma Community College where she studies mathematics to downtown where she works.
On days when she works, she catches the bus at 6:45 a.m. sharp. It’s a tight schedule, and if runs on her routes were cut back, that would be “very hard,” Tennison said while rushing to catch the Route 151 bus last week.
Proposition 1 opponents argue the agency’s wages are too high and that the increase, which would make Pierce County’s sales tax the highest in the state, will drive business elsewhere, especially automobile sales.
“I want mass transit, but this is out of control,” Nick Sherwood, an organizer for the opposition campaign, said in a meeting with The News Tribune editorial board this month.
Approval would bring the sales tax on goods and services to 9.7 percent in most cities within the Pierce Transit service area and 9.8 percent in Tacoma. Car sales would be taxed an additional 0.3 percent due to state motor vehicle sales tax.
Pierce Transit already collects six cents on every $10 purchase within its taxing district. The ballot measure would add another 3 cents. It would bring the transit tax rate to same level as charged by King County Metro and Community Transit in Snohomish County, and the maximum allowed by state law.
Pierce Transit officials estimate the increase would bring the agency an additional $159.7 million by the end of 2017, allowing them to gradually raise service hours from 419,000 to 515,000 and to restore special event service.
If voters reject the tax again, the agency would begin cutting service hours in mid-2014, reaching 197,000 hours – roughly half the current service level – by 2017.
Pierce Transit officials say the new revenue is needed to help the agency recover from the hit their sales tax collections took in the recession. The agency, which had projected that income would grow a steady 6 percent each year, expected to take in $97 million from sales tax in 2011. Actual receipts were $64.5 million. Sales taxes account for about 70 percent of the agency’s revenue.
Opponents say bad projections don’t justify an increase.
“That’s just poor planning through the stimulus years,” Sherwood said.
Pierce Transit officials say they started planning for the recession immediately in December 2007, and used reserves to prevent making knee-jerk decisions. They’ve raised fares twice since then and have had three rounds of layoffs, but they say that hasn’t been enough, given that Pierce County spending has been slow to recover.
Opponents say the resulting cuts are a shame for people who rely on the bus system, but that Pierce Transit officials let employee costs get out of control and should cut there first.
The transit union agreed to a new contract in August, which eliminates most wage increases during its three-year term and requires employees to cover more of their medical costs. Negotiated changes helped lower the agency’s monthly premium for the health insurance used by most Pierce Transit employees from $1,730 to $1,639. That will save the agency roughly $550,000 annually. Employees contribute $120 to $145 a month for their health and dental plans.
Wages and benefits are still too high, opponents say.
In the previous contract, employees had received annual wage increases between 3.5 and 4 percent. Many have been with the company for decades, and over the years those increases added up, officials say. The average salary of a Pierce Transit bus driver is $52,000, and the average age of the agency’s workforce is about 55.
“You can’t take 30 years of tradition and history, and however many contracts were negotiated before there was an economic recession and expect in one fell swoop to change everything,” chief executive officer Lynne Griffith said. “You’re going to have to approach that in a measured way, and I think we really got some good ground in this last negotiation.”
Transit officials also argue that bus drivers must handle substantial responsibility.
“They are a skilled professional who is responsible for moving down the street a major piece of equipment that is carrying potentially 60 people on board. They are often times the first responder to an emergency,” Pierce Transit spokesman Lars Erickson said. “They are doing more than I think the average person really gives them credit for.”
Proposition 1 opponents also focus on how Pierce Transit’s boundaries were redrawn this year. Some shopping centers – such as the Meridian corridor on the South Hill – remain inside the boundaries while nearby unincorporated areas, such as Sherwood’s South Hill home, were removed. Critics say that move essentially means taxation without representation for those residents who now live outside the transit service area but shop inside of it.
“They all have to pay the tax, they just won’t get to vote on it,” Sherwood said in the editorial board meeting.
The lines were redrawn by a group of elected officials from throughout the county in a process that ended in May. Bonney Lake, Sumner, Orting, Buckley, DuPont and some areas of unincorporated Pierce County were cut out.
Griffith said ridership, cost to operate in the areas and how communities voted on last year’s tax proposal guided the redrawing.
“People spoke out through their vote ... and there was a very significant indication in some of those outlying areas that they are not interested in funding and supporting transit,” she said.
Transit officials say commercial areas such as Meridian need bus service to get employees and shoppers alike to those businesses. That said, the areas outside the boundary are not entirely without shopping centers, Griffith said. The agency will lose $8 million in annual sales tax without the revenue from those regions.
Griffith says it’s important to remember who benefits from the funds. More than half of the agency’s riders live in households that make less than $20,000 annually.
Having riders bear the costs would mean an average of $5 per trip – or $48 for riders of paratransit, the system’s disability service, which would also see weekend service cut and fewer hours if the proposition doesn’t pass.
“For the significance of what transit brings to the community in terms of keeping people moving, dealing with access to jobs ... or getting our kids to school, it’s a small price to pay,” she said.
For Rick Bauer, who has sold cars in Pierce County for 25 years, that price doesn’t look so small. Auto dealers are among the top donors to the campaign against the proposition, which has raised $21,000.
Bauer is worried the sales tax increase will drive customers from the Lakewood dealership where he works to other counties.
“They could drive 20 minutes in any direction and save $500 plus on a car,” Bauer said. “You can’t compete. ... People always ask: ‘What’s the sales tax?’... It’s that tipping point.”
Concern that a higher sales tax rate would hurt business led the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber to announce its opposition to the Pierce Transit proposal in August.
“The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber has long supported transit in Pierce County,” Chamber President & CEO Tom Pierson said in a release. “Unfortunately, the proposed sales tax levels are simply unacceptable. As the chamber continues to welcome businesses and jobs to the area, we need to stay competitive with the communities around us.”
Pierce Transit officials say it takes an economist to predict what will happen, but that businesses benefit from a healthy transit system.
When transit is limited, taxpayers see increased costs related to transportation of children to and from schools and for ambulance usage, Griffith said. As an example, Pierce Transit’s paratransit service made 35,115 trips to dialysis treatment facilities alone in 2011.
“We as citizens end up paying for it in a slightly different way, but we still end up paying for it,” she said.
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268