Everett City Council backs transit tax hike

EVERETT – Everett Transit will run out of money and have to start making drastic cuts in service unless voters approve a tax increase for the agency, Mayor Ray Stephanson said Thursday.

The City Council on Wednesday night unanimously voted to back a Sept. 14 referendum to double Everett Transit’s share of the sales tax from 0.3 percent to 0.6 percent. If the measure passes next Wednesday, retail customers in Everett would pay a tax of 8.6 cents per dollar rather than the current 8.3 cents.

Earlier this month, Stephanson said a referendum might be necessary next year. But after a closer look, Stephanson and council members now believe the measure should go on the September primary election ballot to prevent big cuts in 2005. Those cuts would be on top of last year’s 14 percent drop in service.

If the referendum passes, Everett Transit’s tax would still be below Community Transit’s, which is 0.9 percent, the mayor pointed out.

The city is also considering a increase in bus fares from 75 cents to $1, Stephanson said. In addition, people with disabilities who ride specially designed buses would have to pay a $1 fare. Those rides now are free, although some disabled riders donate money.

The last Everett Transit fare increase was in 1995. Community Transit riders already pay a $1 fare.

This year, about half of Everett Transit’s budget will come from sales tax revenues, which dropped 8 percent between 2000 and 2003. In addition, the agency has lost revenue over the last decade through statewide tax cuts. Everett Transit chopped $1 million dollars from its budget in recent months, but it’s not enough, said agency director Paul Kaftanski.

Councilman Doug Campbell said enhanced public transit would attract more businesses to Everett and serve the thousands of new residents the city expects. Companies investigating Everett always ask about the quality of public transit, he said.

Auto dealerships worry that a tax increase would drive some of their customers to Skagit County, where the sales tax is between 7.7 and 7.9 percent.

“People will travel to save $50 or $60 on the price of a car,” said Buzz Rodland, owner and president of Rodland Toyota in Everett.

Casey Salz, one of the owners of Brien Ford in Everett, questioned whether the transit system truly needs the money. Salz said he sees many buses that are nearly empty.

Kaftanski said that is in part because some routes have such infrequent service that they attract few riders. Routes with the most frequent service tend to have the most riders, he said.

Councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher said council members looked at smaller tax increases, but were convinced that only a 0.3 percent increase would allow Everett Transit to expand service enough so that more people would leave their cars at home and ride the bus. Taking cars off the road would benefit all residents, she said.

Reporter David Olson: 425-339-3452 or dolson@heraldnet.com.

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