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Pierce Transit’s tax gamble hangs on union’s play

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on June 9, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
June 8, 2012 6:27 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

The Pierce Transit board is poised to roll the dice again on the sales tax increase voters defeated in 2011. The odds look better this time, but the agency will have to first produce a union contract that won’t anger the taxpayers.

The measure on the ballot a year ago February failed for several reasons, economic distress being the chief of them. Tens of thousands of households were – and still are – suffering from loss of income and outright unemployment.

The agency failed to convince voters that it had done enough to squeeze its own expenses. That perception was fueled by the 4 percent salary increase Pierce Transit had previously bestowed upon its drivers, mechanics and other unionized employees, many of whom were already well-compensated by any standard.

Another problem was the fact that many people in the outlying parts of the transit district, especially in East Pierce County and on the Peninsula, were getting too little bus service for their tax money.

That issue that been addressed – by amputation. Effective last month, Pierce Transit dramatically pulled in its boundaries, lopping off 30 percent of its territory.

Gone now are large swaths of the eastern and western county, including Orting, Bonney Lake, Buckley and DuPont. The surgery removed the areas most opposed to the three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax that last year’s measure would have imposed.

That boosts the new measure’s chances. Advocates can also point to the fundamental importance of transit service.

Bus riders include ordinary commuters, but also the poorest of the poor, people with disabilities and students. According to Pierce Transit’s customer surveys, 56 percent of them have household incomes lower than $20,000 and 45 percent of them don’t have a functioning car. For many, the bus is the only way they can get to jobs, grocery stores and medical clinics.

Pierce Transit buses are still plying the county’s urban arterials, but the economic downturn – and the resulting squeeze on sales taxes – has forced sharp cuts in routes and service hours.

The new three-tenths of 1 percent tax proposal headed for the November ballot would restore what’s been lost – and a whole lot more if the economy starts booming again.

The board isn’t interested in a more modest two-tenths increase, which might have succeeded last year and could be an easier sell this year.

But the biggest risk arises from the negotiations between the agency and the union. They’ve dragged on for many months and may wind up in arbitration.

Until the contract is settled, voters won’t know how much of the new taxes would go to restore service and how much to higher compensation. For that matter, if the contract is settled – but looks too fat for lean times – count on a backlash.

That’s not conjecture; it’s a sure bet.

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