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WRTA has a huge challenge persuading suburban voters

Published: Sun, July 20, 2008 @ 12:00 a.m.

After the overwhelming defeat in March of the 0.25 percent Mahoning County sales tax for the Western Reserve Transit Authority, this question must be asked: Has there been such a sea change in the attitude of voters in the suburbs that a November vote will bring a different result?

An honest response would have to be no. The 51,337 voters, mostly in Youngstown’s suburbs and rural communities, who rejected the tax four months ago have not had an epiphany. But does that mean they can’t have a change in attitude?

No, it doesn’t. But to make it happen, the WRTA will have to launch a campaign that goes beyond appealing to residents’ sense of community and humanity.

In the current economic climate, any tax issue faces an uphill battle. For the transit authority, the challenge is doubly difficult. That’s because most people outside the city of Youngstown do not consider public transportation important for their daily living.

Indeed, a majority of the riders live in the city, and only Youngstowners now pay two property taxes that generate $2.6 million a year for the WRTA. That revenue is far less than what the agency needs to continue even the reduced service it has been offering since the defeat of the countywide tax in March.

The 0.25 percent levy would generate about $7 million, which would enable the WRTA to restore full service, including Saturday runs.

While voters in the city remain committed to public transportation, there isn’t a large enough tax base to meet the financial needs of the service.

No choice

WRTA Executive Director James Ferraro says the agency had no choice but to return to voters in Mahoning County in November because the bus service is running out of gas — literally and figuratively.

If the countywide levy is rejected again, it could be the end of the WRTA.

But that warning alone won’t sway the nonbelievers. What should be done?

As a first step, the agency should make public how every $1 is spent, including how much Ferraro and other employees are paid — the cost of benefits must also be included — and how that expenditure compares with public bus services of similar size.

Then, it should show how the two property taxes paid by city residents compare with taxes paid by other localities.

Finally, the WRTA should provide financial projections of what the ultimate cost to taxpayers will be if the agency is dissolved.

It is worth repeating, as we have on other occasions, in expressing our support for the countywide tax and for the WRTA, in general: When the agency discontinued some routes on weekends and evenings, the Mahoning County Department of Job and Family Services was forced to pick up the slack. It has been estimated that it costs $800 a month per client for taxi or van-type transportation, compared with the cost of a monthly ticket for WRTA of $42.

Without a doubt, we are experiencing tough economic times, which is why the needs of lower income residents must not be lost in the shuffle.

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