Ben Franklin Transit leaders are looking at an estimated $7 million tax cut that could also mean missing out on $75 million in state grants.
But supporters of the cut say the transit system is already flush with cash and should give taxpayers a break.
For the second time in less than a year, the transit board will decide whether it wants to reduce the 0.6% sales tax. The board rejected a similar measure in August.
It comes as the transit system is surpassing sales tax collections estimated in the budget.
Board members — who are city council and county commissioners from Benton and Franklin counties — are set to debate the issue at their next meeting at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 14.
You can watch the video online, or call in at 877-853-5247 using meeting ID 989 6217 8731 and password 833979.
Also, the Kennewick City Council has called a special meeting after its regular workshop session Tuesday to talk about its position on the tax cut ahead of Thursday’s meeting.
The transit board is looking at two options that would cut the sales tax by 0.1%.
One option would temporarily suspend the collection of 0.1% of the tax. The other option is to put it on a ballot for voters to permanently make the cut.
Supporters, including Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier and Benton County Commissioner Will McKay, say all they see are empty buses being funded with millions of dollars that could go to people who need it.
“With this inflation hitting our constituents here in the Tri-Cities, I think it’d be more than gracious for us to let the public decide if they think we should maybe take 0.1 of 1% away from Ben Franklin Transit,” Didier said during a March meeting.
Opponents, including Kirk Williamson, program manager for Benton Franklin Community Health Alliance, argue the change would make the bus system less accessible for the people who most need it.
“You could characterize people who use transit as people who are making choices between filling their gas tank or putting dinner on the table,” Williamson said. “We know there are people in the community that have that problem.”
WA transportation grants
Any change to the bus system’s sales tax could carry another cost, losing $75 million in state grants over the next 16 years, according to Ben Franklin Transit.
State lawmakers passed a 16-year plan to fund transportation projects across Washington. That includes about $3.4 million for 2022 and $4.5 million for the next 15 years for Ben Franklin Transit.
To be eligible for the money, the transit system needs to keep the same sales tax rate it had at the beginning of the year.
The system also needs to institute a policy by October that all riders under 18 can ride for free.
Transit officials also said in a release that trimming the sales tax would reduce transit services, cut staff and/or reduce capital improvement projects.
Sales tax collections
Sales tax revenue makes up an estimated $48 million of the bus system’s $70 million budget.
The system’s conservative estimates for sales tax revenue appeared to have underestimated the amount of money being brought in.
According to February staff report, the tax raised about $9 million more than what was expected for 2021.
The latest figures for 2021, show that trend continuing with January sales tax revenue exceeding the budget by $442,000.
It’s that influx of cash that motivated Didier, who has previously criticized the bus system’s spending, to raise the issue of trimming the sales tax.
“I’ve had numerous people talk to me and complain to me about the fact that the buses are running and there’s nobody on,” he said during a March 10 board meeting. “I’ve seen one bus with three people on it. That’s the most I’ve ever seen.”
Didier expects the sales tax revenue will continue to do well, and believes it’s time to put the measure to a vote.
He was supported in the meeting by McKay, who said that he believes it will help constituents.
West Richland Councilman Richard Bloom suggested a different proposal temporarily suspending 0.1%, a move that doesn’t require a public vote. That would let the board reinstate the tax if sales tax revenue falls.
And the conservative research group the Washington Policy Center supports cutting the tax. They said the transit system’s revenues have continued to rise in recent years while ridership has decreased.
It’s a service, not a business
Mike Wells, a Teamsters steward at Ben Franklin Transit, said Didier, McKay and the policy center are want the bus service to run as a business, but it’s not.
They must look at it like a service.
Where Didier said he sees empty buses, Wells said many of the routes are near capacity, including buses along Clearwater Avenue and runs to Richland schools.
With the money they would receive from the state, the bus system could add additional runs for students.
“Their view is really business-minded,” he said. “A lot of people don’t want to pay for buses because they don’t use them, but a lot of people don’t want to pay for bombs either, but we do.”
With a the new Amazon warehouses opening this fall and more people moving to the area, more service is going to be needed, he said.
A lot of the riders are children and seniors, he notes.
Williamson said transportation is a constant theme that the Benton Franklin Community Health Alliance sees when they do their community needs assessment.
It particularly affects people without their own car, such as students or senior citizens. People without vehicles often also are needing to get to medical or mental health help.
“I have a pretty strong feeling based on the feedback on the community health needs assessment that there are lots of people who could use transit, or want to use transit but can’t.”
He wants to see the board use the funding to enhance transit services to meet the needs of more people.
Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.