Transit authority board delays vote on sales tax measure, chair says they're not ready

CINCINNATI -- The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority Board of Trustees was set to vote on what sort of sales tax levy -- if any at all -- they would submit to voters this fall, in order to fund a looming $184 million funding gap the bus system faces over the next decade.

On Monday, it was announced that vote would not happen during Tuesday's monthly meeting -- the last regularly-scheduled meeting before the August 8 deadline the transit authority must meet to submit a ballot initiative for Hamilton County's November election.

Transit advocates who attended Tuesday evening's meeting wanted to know why.

Numerous advocates for a new, bus-oriented, county-wide sales tax levy to go before voters spoke to the board during Tuesday night's meeting. Better Bus Coalition President Cam Hardy -- no stranger to transit board meetings -- was among them. He said he was "frustrated" that the board would not vote on if or how to present a sales tax levy to voters this fall.

SORTA board chairman, Kreg Keesee addressed the delay, saying, "This is a very important issue. I didn't think the board had a chance to work through all the issues."

The potential for a sales tax levy has been widely reported for more than a year, but roughly half of the current board first took their seats in January of this year.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune -- himself a documented transit advocate -- spoke out against putting a sales tax levy on the ballot this November, saying it would fail if voters decided this year.

Instead, he called for a "regional" approach to improving Greater Cincinnati's public transit.

"If you put a sales tax on this year, there is going to be a strong anti-tax electorate coming out in the fall, based on other issues that are pending," he told the board. "But beyond that... this is not the right year to put the measure before voters."

Portune made his comments only a few weeks after the county's board of commissioners voted to approve a quarter-cent increase in Hamilton County sales taxes to bridge a looming budget gap, on the promise that that will decrease again after 2020.

Transit board member Brendon Cull did not mince words following Portune's comments.

"I'm incredibly frustrated by Commissioner Portune's comments," he said, calling discussion of a three-state, regional transit system a "sideshow."

"We're trying to fix the core system," Cull said.

The board has called an emergency meeting for next Wednesday, July 25, to vote on a potential sales tax levy to support Metro bus service over the coming decade.

With board approval, the measure would go before Hamilton County voters in November.

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

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