Benton Franklin Transit board to consider tax cut
Meeting set for 6 p.m. Thursday
Last updated 4/14/2022 at 12:19pm
PASCO — A debate over whether Tri-Cities taxpayers should be given a break or extra revenue be invested in new transit projects is set to take place Thursday evening.
The Benton Franklin Transit board meets at 6 p.m., Thursday, April 14, at 1000 Columbia Park Trail, Richland. The meeting is open to the public.
A discussion about reducing the 0.6% collected sales tax by a single percentage point is on the agenda. A similar measure was rejected by the board last August
The board comprises city council members, and Benton and Franklin Counties commissioners.
The transit agency has 17 routes serving the Tri-Cities. Additional routes connect to Benton City, Finley, Kiona, Prosser and West Richland.
The transit board is looking to either temporarily suspend collection of 0.1% of the tax or put the proposal on a ballot for voters to permanently make the cut.
“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,” Franklin County Commission Chairman Clint Didier said during a March transit board meeting.
Didier represents Franklin County’s interests on the board.
He has long advocated for shifting the 0.1% tax from buses to fund mental health services in the area.
But with a mental health sales tax being approved by voters already, he now wants the 0.1% tax to be eliminated.
Opponents of reducing the sales tax contend the loss of revenue could lead to staff and service cuts. They also say they could lose federal dollars.
The system currently operates with a $70 million budget, about $48 million from sales tax revenue.
In February, transit staff reported the tax had raised about $9 million more than expected in 2021, and that trend appeared to be continuing
“We’re collecting way more sales tax than we expected to,” transit board member and Richland City Councilman Richard Bloom said during an early-March board meeting. “We can adjust what we collect in taxes.”
Bloom and Didier, among others, believe it is time to trim the 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,” Didier said. “I’ve seen one bus with three people on it. That’s the most I’ve ever seen.”
The Tri-Cities-based Washington Policy Center also supports cutting the tax. The free market think tank says the transit system’s revenues continue to rise while ridership decreases.
Transit records obtained published by the policy center show that, since 2010, revenue has increased 47% when adjusted for inflation, while ridership has plunged 64%.
While some of that decrease was exacerbated by COVID, transit lobbyists like to omit the fact that ridership was decreasing in years prior. From 2010 to 2019, ridership at BFT decreased 38%,” said Mariya Frost, author of the policy center report.
She noted that Benton Franklin Transit received millions in federal relief dollars, as well as sales tax collections. That breakdown includes $18.9 million through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act in early 2020; $8.4 million in Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act in late 2020; and $20.8 million in American Rescue Plan funding in early 2021.
“BFT also reports being very healthy financially, with $67 million in total cash and equivalents on hand, or about $40 million if you deduct reserves,” Frost wrote.
If the transit board moves to reduce taxes, it could also lose state transportation funds, say some transit officials.
State lawmakers recently approved a 16-year plan to fund transportation projects across Washington. In that budget is $3.4 million for the transit system in 2022 and $4.5 million for the next 15 years.
To be eligible, Benton Franklin Transit has to allow riders under 18 to go fare-free, and maintain their existing sales tax authority, transit spokeswoman Marie Cummings has said.
Opponents of the tax reduction, including the Teamsters union, say Didier and Bloom, among others, want to run the bus system like a business instead of a public service.