Washington County residents face transit vote (Updated)

story by Jamie Smith, special to The City Wire

Public transit advocates and those who are against more taxes have been battling out the idea of raising Washington County’s sales tax by a quarter of a percent (0.25%) to support growing the public transit system in the county.

The measure is on the May 22 ballot in Washington County and early voting for that election started May 7.

The controversy over the issue began with whether it should even go to the voters. Representatives from Ozark Regional Transit and the group Advocates for Public Transit approached both the Benton and Washington county quorum courts to ask that the measure be put on the ballot.

If passed, the sales tax increase was projected to raise an estimated $7.5 million if approved in Washington County. The money would go directly toward drastically increasing the number and availability of fixed and paratransit bus routes. A detailed transportation development plan is outlined on the Advocates for Public Transit website.

Updated info: A citizens group filed a lawsuit Thursday to stop a proposed sales-tax increase vote that would generate money for public transit in Washington County.

Attorney Coleman Taylor, one of the plaintiffs, said the petition filed in circuit court asks for an injunction to stop the May 22 sales tax vote to benefit Ozark Regional Transit, according to a report from The City Wire content partner 5NEWS.

Taylor said the suit contends that the Washington County Quorum Court didn’t follow the law at a March 1 meeting when they voted to place the proposal on the ballot.

The law requires the quorum court to first endorse the tax themselves as a governing body before designating it for a public vote, Coleman said. In this case, the quorum court referred the proposal to the ballot without first endorsing it.

“They weren’t for or against it, the law says the quorum court first has to approve it themselves,” he said.

RIDERSHIP NEEDS
Ridership on public transit has increased by more than 12% in the last year despite the loss of three routes, according to ORT. The ridership numbers are expected to increase, especially if the number of buses and routes increase.

Earlier this year, Benton County’s Quorum Court voted against placing the tax increase on the ballot. In Washington County, the Quorum Court held three meetings where dozens of people on both sides of the issue spoke fervently either for or against the measure.

Advocates for the tax increase say it will provide needed services to elderly and the disabled, students, and many other residents who don’t have other transportation. Advocates also hope to decrease traffic pollution by encouraging more drivers to take the bus once more routes become available. Those who spoke against the tax generally fell into one of two categories: those who do not want to see taxes increased, or those who would rather a more regional plan that incorporates highways and more counties be developed.

Ultimately, the Washington County Quorum Court decided  it was up to the voters to decide if they wanted to be taxed more in exchange for an improved mass public transit system and allowed the question to be placed on the May 22 ballot.

It will also be up to the Quorum Court to ultimately apportion the money between the various public transit entities including ORT and Razorback Transit, which serves students and other residents in the area around University of Arkansas.

TAX DEBATE
As is true with many controversial votes, proponents of each side disagree on the facts involved. Many details were ironed out last week during a forum by the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that encourages people to vote and helps educate the public on the facts behind various issues. The full forum is running at various times on the Fayetteville government channel on both cable and satellite. It’s also available online on the city’s website.

At the center of the controversy has been the idea that ORT would be losing about $150,000 in federal funding for operations because of the area population increase reported in the 2010 U.S. Census. Federal law mandates that any service area exceeding 200,000 people lose certain federal dollars.

“We didn’t just go past the 200,000 (in Northwest Arkansas), we blew by it,” said Phil Pumphrey, ORT executive director.

A vote to approve the federal transportation funding bill has been extended for the seventh time, until June 30. Even if the federal funding bill passes, some area planning experts believe ORT will not be affected.

Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, said in the forum that there are several provisions in the law that allow for the restrictions to be waived.

“Nobody has completely lost the flexibility (in how they spend federal dollars),” he said recently. “There’s no reason to think that will change.”

Regardless of the federal funding issue, the $7.5 million raised each year from the sales tax is expected to allow for a drastic increase in buses and route availability. Jerre Van Hoose, former Springdale mayor and chairman of the ORT board of directors, said that the current 225,000 annual ridership (based on latest fiscal year) is expected to increase to more than 1.325 million in three to five years.

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LEGAL QUESTION
Another major issue in the debate has been whether public transit availability would be lost in areas that did not pass the tax. That issue remains unclear. Initially, it was reported that all money raised in Washington County must be used in Washington County and if Benton County was going to participate in the tax, all money raised there must be used in Benton County.

A recent attorney general’s opinion said the law could be interpreted to mean that money raised in Washington County could be used in Benton County if it’s to the benefit of Washington County residents, Van Hoose said. For example, a bus route that takes Washington County residents to a location in Benton County.

It has been rumored that all Benton County routes would be canceled because the issue is not on the ballot. That’s not necessarily the case. Cities, the county and other entities may pay a matching fund to allow for service to be provided in their respective areas.

For example, Northwest Arkansas Community College contracts with ORT to provide buses for its students. Where this system raises concerns is that the apportionment of money comes before each entity’s governing body annually and is therefore subject to change. A sales tax would provide a consistent funding source for the system.

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