Proposed Walla Walla Valley Transit cuts meet resistance
September 17, 2009
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If you go shopping in Walla Walla and spend $10 on clothes, 3 cents of the tax you pay will go towards the Valley Transit System. That may not sound like much, but sales tax makes up 65% of the transit system’s budget–and due to the recession, those tax revenues have decreased dramatically.
Faced with an increasing budget deficit, Walla Walla’s Valley Transit may soon face tough decisions about where and how to cut expenses in the coming months. “We’re the transit system in the state to hold out the longest,” said General Manager Dick Fondahn.
Like many public transportation systems, Valley Transit gets its operating budget from a variety of different sources. A large portion of the system’s revenue used to come from a motor vehicle tax, but that tax was repealed in 1999 by voter initiative.
“We’ve tried to let people know that our problem didn’t start with this recession,” said Fondahn. “[The tax repeal] is the real cause.”
The decline in sales tax revenue has pushed the system to the breaking point, and the transit board is scheduled to vote on a plan to cut services on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009. There are several variations of the plan, but all would involve reducing service from seven to five routes and running buses at 45 or 90 minute intervals, rather than the current half-hour schedule.
Instead of accepting the cuts, some citizens of Walla Walla have proposed a sales tax increase to fund the system. The increase, from .3 percent to .6 percent, would be put before voters on the February ballot, if the Campaign for Valley Transit can gather enough signatures.
“Some people have a knee-jerk reaction — no taxes for any reason whatsoever,” said Norm Osterman, a volunteer for the group. He continued, “Most people with half a heart can see it’s a service that’s needed in the community.”
Beth Call, another campaign volunteer, agreed.
“Three cents on ten dollars is minimal,” Call said. “It’s important for all members of society to be able to access their jobs.”
At a public workshop on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009, the Valley Transit Board met to discuss possible options for cuts. Although Valley Transit runs expensive programs like Job Access and Dial-A-Ride, the board was reluctant to consider eliminating these services. “We feel that our Job Access program is critical to the community,” said Fondahn. “Because they’re just entering the workforce, that job is typically on the weekends, holidays, and at night. That’s not our least expensive service, but it’s important to the community.”
“The highest priority are people who really have a genuine need,” said board member Rick Newby. Many of those people were at the workshop, in spite of the fact that public comments were prohibited.
“I moved here expecting to have transit,” said resident Freda Tepfer. She supports the sales tax increase and came to the workshop. “I think it’s important for the public to be here so [the board members] don’t think they can act in a vacuum.”
Public comments are being taken by the board all next week, in preparation for their final decision on Sept. 22. The Associated Students of Walla Walla Community College have already submitted a letter in favor of the sales tax increase and Campaign for Valley Transit volunteers are hoping to get the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) and College President George Bridges to do the same.
For now, however, the fate of Valley Transit will be left to those who are willing to let the board know what they expect from the system.