Transit board seeks quarter-cent sales tax vote for buses

Wichita’s transit advisory board endorsed a proposed quarter-cent sales tax Friday to prop up the city’s financially ailing bus system, but the initiative is heading for a chilly reception at City Hall.

It’s up to a clearly skeptical Wichita City Council to decide whether to place the issue on a public ballot, potentially as early as November.

The proposed sales tax is projected to raise at least $14 million a year to support the transit system, potentially funding a shift to a grid route system.

The system now is struggling under the weight of a $500,000 deficit for 2012. On Tuesday, council members opted to cut city programs to bridge the deficit, rather than reduce bus routes. The council delayed work at Kennedy Plaza and put off some street maintenance and neighborhood cleanups.

Transit board chairman Ron Terzian did not get the unanimous approval he wanted for the sales tax request Friday, as board members faced off over the form and timeline of the campaign in favor of the sales tax.

Jeff Fluhr, president of the Wichita Downtown Development Corp., opposed the resolution, advocating a more deliberate approach to the campaign emphasizing public engagement and education.

“I want to make sure that when we go (to the public with the sales tax initiative) we’re sure-footed. We need to make sure we have the highest probability of success,” Fluhr said. “Look, transit is vital to a vibrant downtown and a vibrant city. We’ve got a lot to do to figure out where the community stands on this issue. We have a lot of transit supporters. We’ve got to strengthen that.”

Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer, who did not attend the meeting, said later Friday that he supports Fluhr’s view.

“Transit is one of those things, like police and fire, that we have to go out to the community,” the mayor said. “To say we’re going to go right out and put this on the ballot is a little premature. We have to find out what all of the citizens of Wichita want.”

Council member Jeff Longwell agreed, calling a November vote “unfair to all of our citizens who need a lot more information on what a system under this tax would look like.”

“I can’t imagine that they’ll be able to find four votes at City Hall to move this forward,” he said.

Earlier this week, other council members voiced concern about growing demands on the city’s sales tax. Other people have expressed interest in a sales tax for industrial and retail recruitment and retention.

But some transit board members exuded confidence that the public is behind the sales tax.

“I think the community cares. I really do,” said board member Richard Schodorf. “In a general election, I think the odds are almost 100 percent.”

Part of the 2012 shortfall, transit director Mike Vinson said, can be traced to a $325,000 claim paid out of transit budget funds in 2011 for a 2008 bus accident. Transit is not covered out of the city’s tort pool, and board members would like the City Council to change that.

This year, though, Vinson said that claims are running at a “record low pace,” with only minor accidents.

Fare increases have driven ridership down about 6 percent, also hitting the transit budget hard.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle