Transit sales tax failure a 'political reality' in 2018, SORTA board member says

CINCINNATI -- Frustration and disappointment came from all angles Wednesday morning during a special meeting of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees.

The source of that frustration depended on whom you asked, but most agreed that politics had a lot to do with the board's decision. And others worry those politics could mean decreased bus service, higher fares and layoffs at Cincinnati Metro.

In a meeting called specifically to vote on whether to present voters with a new sales tax levy this fall, SORTA Board Chair Kreg Keesee reiterated what he said Tuesday evening via an emailed statement: "This isn't the right climate to get this passed. It's obviously not an easy decision to make. I have every intention to move this to the ballot as soon as practicable," he told fellow board members, the public and reporters Wednesday morning.

"It has become clear to me that we have not reached an appropriate consensus within the Board and the community to vote tomorrow... I do not believe that the current environment provides a clear path to victory at the polls even if consensus had been reached," Keesee said in his statement Tuesday.

The board consists of 13 members: The city of Cincinnati appoints seven and the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners appoints six. Three of the county's appointees represent Butler, Clermont and Warren counties. 

"I can't think of anything more difficult to pass than a tax levy," said board member Thaddeus Hoffmeister of Wyoming, Ohio, who was appointed by the county commission. He called the board's decision as a recognition of a "political reality."

In 2018 alone, Hamilton County residents already have seen three tax hikes or renewals -- one for the county's public libraries, a renewal of a tax for the Cincinnati Zoo, and a sales tax increase enacted by the county commissioners to go toward the county's general fund. That sales tax increase could be subject to a recall on November's ballot.

"We don't have a Fiona to help us pass this," Hoffmeister said.

Another county-appointed board member, Pete McLinden, of Lebanon, said he wasn't ready to support a ballot measure for which he didn't see a consensus.

"I'm disappointed we couldn't come to a vote, but I'm not going to vote for a sales tax levy because it's something to do," he said. He called for a renewed transit tax campaign that would look like "Preschool Promise on steroids."

Other board members are worried there's no time left to wait. 

"Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," said city-appointed board member Rod Hinton, who said he was saddened he couldn't vote on the issue Wednesday.

"The plan was right in front of us," said board member Brendon Cull, referring to the Reinvent Metro plan that laid out six different sales tax levy options for the board to consider. "There is no manna from Heaven, Columbus or Washington coming our way."

Meanwhile, without a new source of funding or service cuts, Metro faces a $6 million operating budget deficit coming down the pipe in less than six months. The board is obligated to provide a balanced budget each year, and the next budget cycle begins January 2019.

The board's 11th-hour decision to pull the vote from the board's agenda provoked emotional responses from bus advocates and Metro staff members, who fear reduced service, fare increases and staffing cuts. The previous board of trustees resolved last year to explore a sales tax levy as a means of filling a looming $184 million budget gap over the next decade.

Metro's current budget forecast shows a $6 million operating deficit for 2019 -- a gap that a sales tax levy would have helped fill.

"I'm angry right now, so I'm going to keep my comments brief," said Cam Hardy, who heads up the grassroots bus advocacy group, the Better Bus Coalition. "All I'm hearing is pie in the sky. We need to take that '20 million rides by 2021' mission statement down. That's not going to happen if we're slashing service.

"At this point, the public can't trust this board," he said.

Metro operator Jamar Dunbar also addressed the board, saying his co-workers fear layoffs if the board doesn't move forward with a sales tax plan.

"I got a lot of phone calls last night from drivers afraid they're going to lose their jobs," he said. "Meanwhile, I drove a bus that was 14 years old the other day." 

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 627 President Troy Miller put this fear in a larger context with his remarks: "I represent 800-plus employees. I had to find out through the news that this decision was made," he said. 

He described how later in the day he was scheduled to meet some new Metro hires. "I'm going to have to go tell them, 'Welcome to Metro, you might not have a job soon.'"

Keesee said service cuts and layoffs would be a measure of "last resort."

The board's decision not to pursue a tax levy had some thinking a city-centric approach is a more realistic goal, including former board member and City Council member Jim Tarbell.

Tarbell sat quietly in the back of the room Wednesday morning until the meeting was almost over, when he said he felt compelled to speak.

"If what I’m hearing here today is true," he said, "then it is time to talk about a funding measure, not about one that won’t happen, but that will happen." Tarbell suggested something akin to a new city-wide tax -- like the city's earnings tax -- that would generate millions each year for Metro.

Hardy said the Better Bus Coalition will propose a city-oriented plan in the coming months, in light of the board's decision.

The last time the city of Cincinnati passed a new city-wide tax was the city's earnings tax, passed in the 1970s.

Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.

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