Plenty has changed for the Allen County Regional Transit Authority as it attempts to pass a levy for the second time in 18 months.
Its first attempt during the Nov. 8, 2017, general election was disastrous and ended with voters soundly rejecting the request, 59 to 41 percent. The campaign was poorly run, didn’t have the full support of its own board, and most of all, the increase being sought by the RTA was significantly more than needed. In fairness, the amount of that increase — 0.25 percent — was the smallest increase allowed by state election procedures at that time, but the transit authority could never explain what it would do with the extra money.
Transforming that 18-point margin of defeat into victory on the May 7 ballot will be a formidable task for the RTA, but it is running a much stronger campaign.
It has placed a constant emphasis on the new tax being just 2 cents of $20 a consumer spends, a message that seems to be resonating with voters. Already the levy has been endorsed by all seven mayors in Allen County, Regional Planning and local businesses.
The 0.1% increase would nudge Allen County’s sales tax to 6.85% and raise $1.5 million a year for RTA — enough for the transit authority not only to remain viable, but to reinstate weekend and night routes. However, Allen County would lose its claim of having the lowest sales tax in the nine-county region, surrendering that to Hancock County, which has a 6.75% rate. Six of the seven remaining area counties have a 7.25% sales tax while Putnam County is at 7%.
The campaign committee has done a commendable job explaining the services the RTA provides, be it transportation for adults going to and from work, providing rides for children attending school, or offering a means for people to get to medical appointments or do their shopping. It notes 47 percent of those using the service are either the elderly or people with special needs, and transportation is provided throughout Allen County, not just the Lima metro area.
The misconception, however, is that Allen County will lose its RTA service if the levy fails.
Let’s be clear: It’s unlikely that would happen.
Back in March when the RTA announced it would be making another levy attempt, Director Shelia Haney warned “we won’t continue to function if it doesn’t pass.” She has since backed off that statement, saying the RTA, with some more belt-tightening, could limp through 2019.
Also entering the equation is the prospect of Allen County receiving some new state funding. In the weeks following the levy kickoff, the Ohio Legislature passed a state transportation budget that doubled the allocation for public transit, setting aside $70 million. It was a result of a deal the Senate made in order to secure a lower increase in the gas tax.
What does all of this mean?
Simply put, there will be additional funds for Allen County from the state for public transit, but how much and when, won’t be known for a few months. It’s pure speculation — and perhaps a wild dream — to think it would be enough to cover the $1.5 million the RTA says it needs.
David Reedy, the deputy director of budget and finance in the Ohio Senate, says Allen County could receive “significant increases.” He did not elaborate on what is constituted as “significant.” Matt Bruning of the Ohio Department of Transportation agreed that Allen County would see additional funds, but he too declined to speculate how much or when those funds would be available, saying that answer will come sometime after July 1.
It does give taxpayers a choice on May 7.
They can decide to hold off voting for the levy for a second time and wait to learn more about the state funding. The risk here is a spiral effect: If the funding does not cover the need, RTA would have to reduce services, which then would result in the loss of matching grants tied to ridership.
The other option is voters can decide that paying 2 cents on every $20 worth of purchases is a reasonable and safe investment for the county.