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Published: Tuesday, 5/25/2010

Sylvania Township says TARTA hasn't sold sales tax idea

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

If TARTA's proposed switch from 2.5 mills of property taxes to a half-cent sales tax as its primary local revenue source is to make it onto the Nov. 2 ballot, either John Jennewine or Kevin Haddad is going to have to be persuaded to consent to it.

That's not to say that leaders in other Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority member communities don't also have to get on board the sales-tax bus before it hits the street.

But Mr. Jennewine and Mr. Haddad, who are two of Sylvania Township's three trustees, both expressed strong opposition to the proposal Thursday night because of the 30 percent revenue boost it is expected to give the transit authority.

And that's additional revenue the two trustees said they couldn't support without a stronger idea of how TARTA will revamp service to improve efficiency.

"I just strongly believe TARTA needs to look at its service model," Mr. Jennewine said after he and his trustee colleagues heard a presentation from James Gee, who is the transit authority's general manager, and testimony from two people who ride the buses in Sylvania Township.

While replacing the property taxes with a sales tax is reasonable, he said, increasing TARTA's tax revenue from $17.2 million annually to an estimated $25.6 million would be "foolish" under current economic conditions, especially when ridership in the township is very light.

"I'm all for going to a sales tax. My main opposition is to the amount," Mr. Jennewine said. "You're coming in asking for way too much money."

And Mr. Haddad, who operates a beauty salon on Monroe Street near Secor Road, said the buses that go past his business have so few passengers most of the time that he considers taxes Toledo's suburbs now pay into TARTA to essentially be a subsidy for the Toledo Public Schools.

"You need to use much smaller vehicles," Mr. Haddad said while holding photocopied pictures of different minibus models.

"I just can't vote for your plan until you show us how you're going to spend the money."

Unless one of the two reluctant trustees changes his mind, the TARTA proposal, intended both to broaden the agency's tax base and allow expansion of bus service to all of Lucas County, is doomed. The legislative bodies of nine existing transit authority members, including Sylvania Township, all must approve a county membership request before the tax question can go to voters, and as of late last week only Spencer Township and Ottawa Hills had done so.

Mr. Gee's presentation to the trustees last week focused, as it did when he appeared before leaders in other communities, on net tax cuts most residents in the existing service area will receive if the sales tax passes.

An average Sylvania Township family will pay about $111 in sales tax, or about 33 percent less than the $166 annual property-tax bill for typical house in the township, if its spending patterns are typical, Mr. Gee said.

"Unless it's the year you're buying a car, most of our residents would be better off" with a sales tax, Carol Contrada, who is the chairman of the township board, said.

While a half-cent transit tax would give Lucas County the second-highest sales tax in Ohio, Mrs. Contrada said the 7.25 percent "wouldn't be way out there" in comparison with several neigh-boring counties that now collect 7 percent.

And David Simko, the township's fiscal officer, predicted other counties eventually will catch up with sales-tax hikes of their own.

"Other than abandoning the whole system, there is still going to be some form of tax" to pay for public transit in Lucas County, Mr. Simko said.

Jessica Weinberg, a Tottenham Road resident who doesn't drive, said a sales tax would spread the transit authority's tax burden across a broader spectrum of the community, because poor and disabled people who are much more likely to ride buses are less likely to own real estate.

But Mr. Jennewine said there ought to be cheaper ways for Sylvania Township to serve its transit-dependent population than what TARTA now provides, and requested cost-per-passenger data that Mr. Gee did not have in his presentation.

The trustee also urged transit officials to raise fares to eliminate some of the need for taxpayer subsidy.

TARTA's $1 base fare is among the lowest in Ohio.

Mr. Gee said the size of buses assigned to "fixed" routes in Sylvania Township, such as those along Bancroft Street and Central Avenue, is determined "by peak ridership on the route," which typically occurs farther east in Toledo.

The door-to-door Call-A-Ride service that TARTA operates elsewhere in the township and neighboring suburbs, Mr. Gee said, is an acknowledgement that the traditional transit model no longer works well outside the central city.

"A lot of our passengers would have trouble bearing a fare increase," the transit manager said.

But Mr. Jennewine responded that "to think that we've got to provide them a door-to-door service in these difficult economic times is absurd."

TARTA has asked its member communities to act on resolutions admitting Lucas County to the transit authority by June 30, after which the authority's trustees would vote to put the sales tax on the Nov. 2 ballot. Under state law, the agency may only request taxes in quarter-penny increments, and Mr. Gee has said a quarter-cent tax would provide only about two-thirds of the income TARTA gets from its property taxes.

The municipal councils in Waterville and Rossford were scheduled to discuss the TARTA issue during meetings Monday evening, while a Toledo City Council committee has scheduled a discussion for Tuesday.

The matter is under various stages of consideration in Perrysburg, Maumee, and Sylvania.



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