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Published: Thursday, 4/5/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

TARTA considers sales tax idea again

But hurdles to switch make pursuit unlikely

BY DAVID PATCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority will revisit the idea of changing the agency's local tax source to a sales tax, but the proposal faces the same hurdle that thwarted it two years ago: unanimous consent by member communities.

Five members of the TARTA board volunteered Thursday morning to serve on an ad-hoc study committee after one of them, Tom Ramsdell, urged action as soon as possible to pursue a tax question on the Nov. 6 ballot.

James Gee, the transit authority's general manager, said after the brief discussion that getting a sales-tax question on in November would be "very tough" because it would require obtaining resolutions supporting Lucas County's inclusion as a new TARTA member from each of the agency's existing members.

"It's a drawn-out process to get resolutions from all nine communities, plus the county," Mr. Gee said.

A similar proposal initiated two years ago by the transit authority, based on a consultant's recommendation, was abandoned when Sylvania Township and Maumee both voted against allowing Lucas County to join the system.

A Sylvania Township official said Thursday township leaders might be willing to revisit the issue. But Maumee's representative on the TARTA board was less optimistic.

"I don't know that there's a sense of Maumee City Council to change its position," he said after agreeing to serve on the ad-hoc committee.

Francis Frey, vice president of the TARTA board, said he would bring the issue back to council, but "if they're saying 'No,' it's essentially dead in the water."

TARTA's other current members are Toledo, Ottawa Hills, Spencer Township, Waterville, Perrysburg, Rossford, and the city of Sylvania.

While Perrysburg voters last month approved a resolution to withdraw from the transit agency, Perrysburg's approval would still be needed for Lucas County to join because that city's TARTA membership won't expire until Sept. 22, a statutory six months from the Wood County Board of Elections' certification of the March withdrawal vote. Lucas County would have to become a member by early August to get a sales-tax vote on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Mr. Ramsdell said that if there was any chance of success, preparations could not wait. The ad-hoc committee agreed to meet April 18, at 2 p.m. in TARTA headquarters at 1127 W. Central Ave.

Joining Mr. Ramsdell and Mr. Frey on the committee are TARTA trustees Shelley Papenfuse, Deb Angel, and Tom Kaczorowski.

TARTA is the last Ohio transit authority to receive local funding through a property tax. It collects two levies, totalling 2.5 mills, in its nine member communities that generate about $16.7 million in annual revenue. One mill equals $1 of tax for each $1,000 of assessed property value.

At the time the transit authority was created, state law specified property tax as the proper source for such agencies, but sales taxes are now the primary local funding source for Ohio transit systems.

Without unanimous support from all member communities, Lucas County can't be admitted as a new TARTA member, and without Lucas County as a member, there can be no TARTA sales tax in Lucas County.

When the Sylvania Township trustee majority voted down county membership in June, 2010, trustees Kevin Haddad and John Jennewine said they could not support the revenue increase TARTA would receive from a half-cent sales tax without hearing more details about how service would improve.

Speaking before the transit board Thursday, Mr. Haddad said his community still had not received the sort of details it would need to reverse its position and support a sales tax.

The transit authority estimated annual revenue from a half-cent sales tax at $25.6 million. State law requires sales taxes to be collected in quarter-penny increments, and transit officials said a half cent was thus the smallest sales tax they could ask for, because a quarter cent would generate less revenue than the property levies do.

The agency said at the time that it would use the additional money to offer Call-A-Ride bus service throughout rural areas of Lucas County and reconfigure fixed-route bus lines in parts of the existing service area.

Sylvania Township -- whose taxpayers, after Toledo's, contribute the second largest share of TARTA levy revenue -- also has discussed pulling out of TARTA and setting up its own transit service. Township trustees in January canceled a March pullout referendum, saying they needed more time to develop an alternative service proposal.

Rossford also is considering departure from TARTA and is studying its options. Both communities have until August to place any pertinent referenda on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Critics in those communities, as well as Perrysburg, have argued that their residents pay too much for too little service and that the transit authority's assignment of full-sized buses to lightly used suburban routes is wasteful. Mr. Gee has countered that the operating and maintenance costs for full-sized buses are comparable to those of mini-buses, and bigger buses are assigned based on the peak expected ridership of any vehicle during its driver's shift.

Merchants throughout the transit district, meanwhile, protested two years ago that a sales-tax increase would push customers to competitors in neighboring, lower-tax counties. Mr. Frey said that was the stumbling block in Maumee two years ago, especially as it pertained to revenue from the Shops at Fallen Timbers.

Contact David Patch at: dpatch@theblade.com or 419-724-6094.



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