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SORTA Board Delays Seeking Bus Transit Tax Levy Until 2017

Sarah Ramsey

  The choice for the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) board Wednesday was simple – go to the voters now for a new sales tax increase to save the financially troubled bus system or go to the voters later.

In a unanimous vote, the board choose "later" – as in 2017.

One resolution before the board would have put a countywide sales tax increase on this November's ballot, but the board chose instead one which said the board "directs staff to take all appropriate actions necessary to prepare for a ballot initiative in 2017."

Earlier this year, a "Metro Futures Task Force" headed by George Vincent, who heads the law firm of Dinsmore & Shohl told the SORTA board that to replace the current city-funding of the bus system and grow it, the sales tax would have to be at least 0.5 percent.

The board has been considering two options – a 0.25 percent sales tax, which would generate about $34.5 million a year, or the 0.5 percent, which would raise $69 million annually.

The SORTA board members said in their meeting Wednesday morning that they are not yet ready to go to the public.

"Understand that we're not trying to create an intergalactic transit system,'' SORTA board chairman Jason Dunn told WVXU. "We're trying to meet the needs of what the people say. So, with that, it takes time."

The alternative, according to numerous studies done for the SORTA board, is to cut service, increase fares or both. After next year, the bus system will be operating in the red.

The system is funded now by three-tenths of a percent of the city of Cincinnati's earnings tax. That funding would likely go away if voters approved a county sales tax increase.

Dunn said the board needs to do more to communicate the need to the public over the next year before deciding to ask them to approve a tax increase.

"We want to make sure that we're successful and part of this year's plan was to go through a deliberate process to educate not only the board, but the community, to start the discussion,'' Dunn said.

Some board members, also, were concerned that it was too late to raise the private money necessary to fund a pro-sales tax campaign.

Nick Vehr, head of Vehr Communications and a consultant to the board, said that in a presidential election year it might take anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million to run an effective campaign.

A campaign in an off-year election like 2017, Vehr said, would probably be considerably less costly.