At the same time that King County Metro demands a huge tax increase to simply maintain existing bus service, Snohomish and Pierce counties are actually adding bus service without raising transportation taxes.
Late last year Community Transit of Snohomish County announced “plans to add 2,500 new service hours and hire five new drivers.” Sales tax revenue increased 6.6 percent last year and will likely go up another 4 percent this year. Late last year in Tacoma, the News Tribune announced that, “Months after threats of bus service being slashed and drivers laid off, Pierce Transit now says it plans to expand hours next year and that it can sustain that higher level of public transportation through 2019.” Reason? Sales tax revenue is expected to steadily increase during that time. Last summer Tacoma's transit board cancelled plans to cut service by 31 percent because tax revenues were rising beyond projections. This comes after voters twice rejected higher transit taxes at the polls.
So why does King County Metro require tripling the “temporary” car tab tax of $20 and imposing a higher sales tax simply to avoid cutting bus service 17 percent?
Didn’t sales tax revenue increase here too? Oh yes, and how: Metro’s sales tax revenue is forecast to hit $471 million, the highest on record, and more than $30 million above the amount expected. This on top of last year's $440 million total, which also exceeded expectations and set a record.
In fairness, both Pierce and Snohomish counties made much deeper cuts in bus service in the last five years than Metro, so they are starting with a lower financial and performance base. But Metro officials now grudgingly acknowledge that they won’t actually have to cut service by 17 percent if voters reject Prop One (which is on the April 22nd ballot). They won’t say by how much they'll have to reduce service until after the ballots are counted. I doubt it’s because they’re concealing news that would strengthen the case for Prop One.
There are times when it’s very difficult to decide which way to go on an issue that raises taxes for an important public service. This is not one of those times. Prop One might be the least worthy tax measure that I’ve seen on the ballot and I’ve been voting since 1978. Proposition One deserves a “No” with an exclamation point. Why? Let us count the ways.
Start with Metro's fiscal track record and its inability to rein in costs. Since 2000, inflation has risen 36 percent and Metro’s tax revenues have gone up 56 percent. But its operating costs have soared more than 80 percent. Could this be the result of dramatically increased bus service? No. Passenger trips during this time are up only 20 percent. As the Washington Policy Center has pointed out (Disclosure alert: I co-founded and led WPC for eight years), since 2000 Metro has benefitted from two targeted sales tax increases in exchange for promises of more bus service. For every dollar you spend, 9/10 of a penny now goes to Metro, which has delivered only about a third of the promised bus service.
Then in 2009, King County got permission from Olympia to impose an additional property tax levy to fund Metro. King County alone received this taxing authority. In 2011, Olympia again gave King County alone the authority to charge a $20 car tab surcharge. That's two sales tax increases, a car tab fee and a property tax increase in less than a dozen years. The result: one fattened revenue stream and two new ones. Yet despite the uptick, county officials threaten a vast reduction in service unless the $20 car tab surcharge is tripled for at least the next decade, and the sales tax raised to a full penny.
Perhaps it's time to focus more on spending. The appetite for more money just to do what they're already doing tracks the growth of Metro's bureaucracy and the power of its transit union. Today Metro drivers are among the highest paid in America, and its administration is so thick that it caught the attention of the Municipal League — not exactly the Republican Party — which warned that Metro’s costs were spiraling toward where they now are: unsustainable even with existing tax sources. County officials claim that they negotiated the union into accepting major wage concessions. Not really. From 2010-2013 the transit workers got a pay raise every year, save one. Did you?
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