Leavitt renews call to study light-rail funding without sales tax

Councilor Stewart says mayor trying to avoid public vote

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Leavitt's Letter to C-Tran

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One night before Tuesday’s key C-Tran meeting on light rail funding, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt renewed his call to study options to pay for a MAX line other than sales tax -- a move that would most likely mean no public vote in 2012, if ever.

Leavitt presented a letter to Councilor Larry Smith, who also serves as the C-Tran board’s chairman during council communications Monday night.

“The C-Tran Board and community leaders should thoroughly assess all options for CRC (light rail transit) Operations and Maintenance, before asking our community to raise sales tax,” Leavitt wrote in the letter to Smith.

The letter did not outline what other options could raise the estimated $2.57 million annual operations and maintenance cost of a light rail line over the proposed new Interstate 5 bridge to Clark College, as planned in the Columbia River Crossing project.

While most of the city council didn’t speak after Leavitt announced he was giving Smith the letter, councilors Jeanne Harris and Jeanne Stewart expressed surprise at a change in tactic away from sales tax.

“A lot seems to be changing, I don’t feel like I know everything that’s going on,” Harris said.

In an email written Tuesday morning, Stewart said she was wary of Leavitt’s motives.

“In his letter he indicates a desire to avoid a ‘sales tax,’ which would, of course, ‘avoid’ the required vote by citizens,” she wrote.

On Monday, she said that she was worried that only she and Harris seemed taken aback by Leavitt’s letter.

“The two of us here are surprised by this development, but the majority here is not,” Stewart said. “We need to have these discussions in a public forum.”

Harris, who has been a strong proponent of the Columbia River Crossing and light rail, agreed that she wished she had heard more.

“I’m trying to be polite right now, but I feel the same way,” Harris said. “When I was on the board, I knew what was going on. Now I’m not on the boards, I don’t know what’s going on.”

Stewart said in a Tuesday email that the lack of surprise by the four others at the meeting suggests there may have been collusion. Councilor Bill Turlay, who opposes light rail, was absent from Monday’s meeting.

“That can only mean, it was not a surprise to the others (the majority) and it certainly appears any such significant document had been discussed and agreed to, off the record, by the majority,” she wrote.

Leavitt’s intentions have been public -- if not formalized in a letter -- for at least six weeks, during which time The Columbian has published at least three stories on the topic.

When asked to respond to Stewart’s views, Leavitt wrote in an email: “Such a ridiculous statement doesn’t warrant any further response.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.