THE PROPOSAL to raise the sales tax by a penny on the dollar to fund the public bus system, roads and other projects presents Richland County an opportunity to transform its transportation network, enhancing quality of life, improving traffic safety, stimulating the economy and promoting long-term growth.
It’s not the plan we would have devised. Our main concern — and the initial reason for the sales tax proposal — is permanent funding for the ailing public bus system. In recent years, the system — already far inferior to what this community needs — has endured shortfalls, poor leadership and haphazard funding. Operations have improved under a new board and a new executive director, but in July they were forced to make the regrettable but necessary decision to cut service 40 percent.
The effects were devastating for riders who depend on buses to get to work, the doctor’s office and the grocery store. Buses don’t run as frequently, evening service is practically nonexistent, and weekend service has been wiped out.
Columbia City and Richland County councils have had a decade to find funding for the buses, but have squandered political capital by approving other tax increases — most egregiously a 2 percent tax on prepared foods — adding burdens to the local sales tax. Not only are we concerned about over reliance on the volatile sales tax — already 9 percent on some items in Richland County — but we are cautious about raising it even more in a still-sluggish economy.
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But we have reluctantly concluded that raising the sales tax is in the best interest of this community, its economy, its quality of life and, above all, its people. Voters should approve the penny-on-the-dollar increase, and also allow the county to borrow $450 million — to be repaid via the tax — in order to get work started as soon as possible.
We don’t know whether the transportation penny will generate $1.2 billion in economic activity and create more than 16,500 jobs in construction and new industry, as economist Harry Miley projects; but clearly it will have a positive, and potentially quite significant, effect.
But the compelling reason for us to support this effort is the fact it will provide stable, adequate funding to meet the Midlands’ overriding need for a vibrant bus system to serve those whose lives and livelihoods depend on it, expanding a transportation option that helps reduce congestion, pollution and gas use. While unconscionable, our elected officials have made it clear that they are unlikely to ever give the system adequate funding otherwise. Fortunately, Richland County’s citizens won’t shoulder this burden alone; people from outside the county would pay a projected 42 percent of the tax.
As with any undertaking of this magnitude, there is apprehension, risk and unanswered questions. But the positive possibilities are considerable, so much so that a broad cross-section of this community has coalesced around this plan, from elected officials to business leaders to civic and community organizations. Some of the community’s more conservative leaders who normally would shun any sort of tax increase have signed on as well.
Influential leaders we trust and respect say this is a seminal moment in the life of Richland County and its citizens. It’s worth a try.