C-Tran tax hike backers cautiously optimistic

Opponents stepping up their campaign

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter



Proposition 1

HOW MUCH: If approved, the measure would increase C-Tran’s local sales tax rate by 0.2 percent. That translates to an extra 2 cents on every $10 purchase for consumers. The measure would increase C-Tran’s sales tax rate from 0.5 percent to 0.7 percent.

YEA: Supporters of Prop. 1 say the measure is needed to preserve existing bus service and avoid cutting total service by about 35 percent by 2013, meaning far-reaching impacts to riders who depend on public transit.

NAY: Opponents argue that citizens can ill-afford a tax increase in a down economy, and that C-Tran should do a better job of managing its assets more efficiently without coming to voters.

VOTE: Ballots must be turned in or postmarked by Nov. 8.

When C-Tran leaders learn the fate of Proposition 1 next month, it won’t be an altogether unfamiliar experience either way.

The agency tasted defeat when voters rejected a sales tax increase in 2004. Then it successfully passed a smaller tax hike in 2005.

This time around, supporters are cautiously optimistic. They accounted for mostof the organized campaigning around the measure until recently. But they also face the headwind of a still-shaky economy and some skeptical voices calling for C-Tran to take a closer look at the efficiency of its operations and financial management.

“A good cause understands that they can’t predict everything that’s going to happen,” said Tim Schauer, co-chairman of Keep Clark County Moving, a political action committee pushing for the measure. “When ballots get mailed, that’s when the votes really count.”

Proposition 1 would bump C-Tran’s local sales tax rate by0.2 percentage points to boost the budget of an agency that lost much of its state funding in 2000, and has undergone financial turmoil ever since. The increase would translate to an extra 2 cents on every $10 purchase for consumers.

The measure would generate an additional $8 million to $9 million in revenue per year, according to C-Tran. The agency currently spends part of its reserves every year, and C-Tran leaders have said available reserve funds would dry up by 2013 and force major service cuts. Should Proposition 1 go down, that would mean total service cuts by 2013 of about 35 percent, including the elimination of a dozen weekday routes, plus all Sunday service and special event service, according to C-Tran.

C-Tran’s local sales tax rate now stands at 0.5 percent. Proposition 1 would make it 0.7 percent.

Early efforts

Keep Clark County Moving took its message to voters early, kicking off the campaign with a small rally at the Clark County Fair in August. Other efforts followed, with riders and some local elected officials pitching in their support along the way.

Opponents have made their message more visible recently with the placement of red and yellow “Save Our County” signs urging a no vote on Proposition 1, and a yes vote on the statewide toll-limiting Initiative 1125. Others raised earlier questions around C-Tran’s finances, including the purchase of more than a dozen hybrid buses recently, and the $43 million C-Tran reported in reserves at the end of August. The agency operates at an annual budget of about $41 million, and has said upcoming commitments and a required minimum balance will deplete available funds in 2013. Opponents have called for better efficiency, echoed by local residents Larry Patella, Debbie Peterson and Thomas Hahn in their voter’s pamphlet statement against the measure.

“C-Tran needs to do what so many of us are doing: set priorities, tighten up spending, and become more efficient so existing services will be preserved, without raising taxes,” they wrote, in part.

C-Tran officials have pointed to recent cost-cutting measures such as the reduction of 35 staff positions and small service reductions. It also cut back on travel, supplies and janitorial services at the administrative office in Vancouver, C-Tran public affairs director Scott Patterson said recently.

“We’ve gone through every line of the budget in this biennial budget,” Patterson said.

Non-represented C-Tran employees took a pay freeze in both 2010 and 2011, according to C-Tran. But the agency’s union-represented workers — more than 80 percent of its total staff — continued to receive regular “step” pay increases as required, pending a new labor contract, according to Patterson. Represented fixed route drivers earn anywhere from $18.08 to $23.79 per hour. Paratransit drivers are paid $14.79 to $20.85 per hour. Those employees also have the entire cost of their medical benefits covered.

In all, salaries, wages and benefits make up about three-quarters of the agency’s total operating budget.

Supporters of Proposition 1 will likely step up their efforts in the next few weeks, Schauersaid. That means continuing phone calls, door knocking and campaign signs, he said. Opponents also appear to be mounting a final push. Peterson said in an interview she’s concerned about the impact to businesses and families should a higher tax rate take money out of the local economy.

Camas resident Dave Lattanzi helped campaign for this year’s measure and the 2005 version. He said he’s come across a wide variety of people who rely on C-Tran in one way or another — his son among them — and hopes to get that message to voters. But getting a pulse on voter support this year is difficult, Lattanzi said, particularly with a separate measure on high-capacity transit funding likely coming next year.

“It’s really hard to gauge,” he said.

On Proposition 1, C-Tran will have its answer Nov. 8.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; www.twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.