LIMA — On Tuesday, Allen County voters will have a second chance to decide whether they will fund the Allen County Regional Transit Authority.
Proponents of the May levy, which would increase the Allen County sales tax by 0.1%, say the additional local dollars are necessary to avoid a downward spiral in cuts that could eventually eliminate the service.
On the flip-side, opponents — including a couple of former employees of the ACRTA — say that the levy is the wrong way to provide those funds, and existing resources could be handled more efficiently to ensure the ACRTA’s survival.
For the levy
ACRTA Executive Director Shelia Haney said there are some new factors differentiating the latest levy request from the ACRTA’s 2017 vote. Most notable is a change made by the Ohio General Assembly allowing the ACRTA to ask for less money than it had in 2017.
“I voted ‘no’ November of 2017 for that very reason,” Campaign Chair Esther Baldridge said. “It’s not that I don’t really trust Shelia, but I didn’t want Shelia to have money that she didn’t need and decide: ‘Okay, well, I think Allen County needs a sidewalk here.’ I’m happy to give Shelia the money she needs to operate RTA. I’m not so happy to give her money that I don’t know what she’s going to use.”
Due to the state’s change, the levy would add $1.5 million in local funds annually to the ACRTA, which would be used to reinstate the fixed night and weekend bus routes cut in 2018. If approved, Allen County’s sales tax rate would increase by 0.1% from 6.75% as it is now to 6.85%.
Other factors differentiating 2017 from 2019 also include the overall organization of the larger campaign and the amount of support that has been garnered for the levy. Since the levy’s campaign officially began earlier this spring, steering committee member Leslie Rigali has pointed to 27 different organizations located throughout the county which have publicly stated support for the 2019 levy.
While that may be the case, little has changed in the reason for the ACRTA’s need. Due to a lack of local public transit taxes — a unique situation for Allen County — the ACRTA has a hard time finding local match dollars for the federal grant it uses as its operating budget. A one-to-one match is necessary, Haney said, and the ACRTA has already examined multiple outlets to raise those funds.
Such efforts include leasing out space in the ACRTA’s building, working with Greyhound, selling honey-buns in bus lobbies and working with some community partners, such as Nelson Packaging and Marimor, to provide bus services to those locations.
Haney and Rigali also point out that the ACRTA often services large numbers of elderly and disabled riders, and without the ACRTA’s $2 door-to-door service, many would have few options when trying to travel to doctor’s appointments or attending to errands that circulate funds throughout the larger community.
Outside of the social services that ACRTA may provide, Haney said the ACRTA is also a major economic driver in the community. Workers without the option of personal transportation often use the public bus service to reach their places of employment, and outside companies looking to the region may see the lack of a bus service as a detriment when considering site selection options.
“The board is fully in support of this,” ACRTA Executive Board President Brad Taylor said. “I just want to make sure that the RTA’s position is clear that we’re unified on the need for this.”
Against the levy
Many who oppose the sales tax increase consistently raise the issue of ACRTA’s alleged mismanagement of taxpayer funds as the primary reason they plan to vote “no” next Tuesday.
“I don’t think they could be efficient as they could be,” said Shelley Gould, former ACRTA finance director. “When we had money issues years ago, we had to cut routes. We had to cut office people. (Haney) is hiring office people, and (staff) is double of what we had.”
Gould, among others, admitted that the some residents need the service, but her primary questions about the levy is how much is necessary, as the local service already utilizes federal and state funding to pay for its operations, especially services with low ridership.
“I would like to see an independent study from an outside source done to see what new routes, if any, make sense and if night hours and weekend hours justify the cost of these routes,” former ACRTA Operations Director Dianna Drexler said in an email to the Lima News. “In the meantime, maybe they need to live within their means like the taxpayers must do or find other sources of local income.”
Suggestions that have been made to address the budget issues raised by the ACRTA — by Gould and others who oppose the levy — include streamlining operations by cutting routes with lowest ridership and raising additional funds by increasing the service’s rates.
Others that challenge the RTA’s need for the levy also point to Ohio’s increased public transit budget line as a potential source of funds. The recently-passed state transportation budget doubled the allocation for public transit, adding $37 million that could be allotted to the state’s 61 public transit authorities.
State officials have yet to state exactly how much that may be specifically for Allen County, and Haney has said even if the ACRTA was to see a major increase, it would most likely need a local match to take full advantage of those dollars.
“There has to be a cheaper way for these people to be transported, without asking the taxpayers to pay more taxes,” Gould said.
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.