CINCINNATI — A City Council committee on Tuesday laid the groundwork for what could become the Tri-State's first boost in bus service funding in more than four decades.
Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld introduced legislation at Tuesday's Education, Innovation and Growth Committee meeting that — if OK'd by the rest of the council — will ask voters' approval to roll back a portion of the city's earnings tax currently earmarked for Cincinnati Metro bus service.
The goal: to make way for a proposed increase to Hamilton County's sales tax as an alternative, enhanced funding source for Metro.
Sittenfeld described his proposal to reduce the city's earnings tax as a first step "to dramatically improve our bus system and infrastructure." Current discussions among city, county and transit leaders indicate an increase in the county's sales tax would fund bus operations, bus capital costs and road and bridge infrastructure improvements that would benefit Metro's routes throughout the county.
Sittenfeld described efforts to boost bus service funding as a "three-step process":
- Cincinnati voters approve the earnings tax rollback.
- The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees votes to put a sales tax increase on a 2020 ballot (either primary or general).
- Hamilton County voters decide whether or not to approve the sales tax increase.
Sittenfeld's earnings tax rollback would only initiate in the event that all three of these steps succeed and county voters approve a sales tax increase.
"This moment that we've arrived at is a very big deal," Sittenfeld said during Tuesdays' meeting. "It's the first legislative step toward dramatically transforming and connecting people to job opportunities and health care through a better bus system."
A critical component to appealing to county voters living in suburban cities and townships, Sittenfeld and others have said, is including funding for road and bridge infrastructure improvements along with bus service improvements.
Cincinnati Metro's $100 million annual operating budget comes primarily from 0.3% of the city of Cincinnati earnings tax, currently set at a rate of 2.1%. If approved, the ballot measure would amend the City Charter to reduce that tax rate to 1.8%.
County voters will likely face the sales tax question either in the spring primary or fall general 2020 election. The SORTA board has the power to put an initiative on the ballot but has not said how much of a sales tax increase they will seek. It will likely constitute anywhere from a 0.7% to a 1% increase to Hamilton County's 7% combined sales tax rate.
The most recent update to Metro's funding model came in 1973, after voters approved a City Charter amendment allocating the 0.3% of the earnings tax to Metro bus service.
Sittenfeld's ballot initiative passed out of committee Tuesday with only one dissenting vote from Councilman Chris Seelbach. Seelbach said he does not oppose finding an alternative source of funding for Metro but does not approve of rolling back the earnings tax.
"I'm glad that we're here today because when we all ran in 2017, this is what we were talking about — mainly our bus system," Seelbach said. "I don't think it's financially prudent to give away .3% of our income tax knowing our financial situation every single June."
Seelbach was referring to what he described as perennial budget problems impacting other public services like police and fire.
Councilmen David Mann, Wendell Young and Sittenfeld all voted in favor of putting the measure on November's ballot. The proposal now moves onto the full council's consideration during Wednesday's meeting. City Council will then recess until after Labor Day.
The deadline to put a measure on November's ballot is September 6.