August 5, 2011 by wcobserver
By Jamie Smith
WASHINGTON COUNTY – Plans are moving forward for a quarter-cent sales tax increase to appear on May’s primary election—but only in Washington County.
The measure is being brought by Ozark Regional Transit, which offers public transportation through scheduled rides and fixed routes in Benton and Washington County. Federal law dictates that ORT will lose a large chunk of its federal funding because of population increases shown in the 2010 U.S. Census. This spring, ORT approached both the Washington County and Benton County quorum courts, asking that the sales tax increase request be allowed on the ballot. Washington County gave the go-ahead for it to be on the ballot, clarifying that it was not necessarily an endorsement for the measure. Benton County, on the other hand, voted against allowing the measure to go to the voters.
Phil Pumphrey, ORT executive director, said Washington County voters should now expect to see the sales tax increase on the May primary ballot. While ORT officials were disappointed with the outcome in Benton County, they still have hopes for the measure passing in Washington County.
“Not getting on the ballot in Benton County doesn’t mean one county can’t have a good system,” he said.
Two separate independent surveys of voters in both counties showed that the polled Washington County voters were slightly more likely to approve a sales tax increase if it drastically improved the public transportation system. The survey, conducted by the Survey Research Center at the University of Arkansas in both 2010 and 2011, said that an estimated 72 percent of Washington County voters would be more likely to approve the sales tax increase if they had a better understanding of the reasons behind the need and more knowledge of ORT’s expansion plans.
ORT is planning a public awareness campaign to share the information with voters, Pumphrey said.
“We think that once they find out the benefits they will support it,” Pumphrey said.
The survey said that some of the top reasons people said they would not support the measure included not wanting more taxes or that they don’t use public transportation themselves. Pumphrey said that research indicates ridership will drastically increase if routes to more places are available.
In December 2010, a consultant group researched and created a Northwest Arkansas Transit Development Plan, which analyzes current and planned usage for the region’s public transportation system. The plan is to increase availability for Washington County, even in the southern portions of the county. Exact routes will be determined based on demand. The full report can be viewed on ORT’s website, www.ozark.org. Current and proposed routes start on about page 82 of the report.
If passed, the sales tax increase would generate an estimated $7.5 million annually in each county where it passes. The law requires that any money generated for such projects stay with the entity where the money was raised. In other words, revenue from Washington County can only be used to support ORT services in that county.
The increased sales tax revenue would make up for the lost revenue from the federal government, allow the cities to stop paying tax-payer dollars for the ORT services to their area and allow for drastically expanded services, Pumphrey said.
If the funding is not replaced with the sales tax, the agency would have to first look at scaling back fixed routes because the law requires public transportation systems to have both the ADA-compliant paratransit vehicles as well as the standard route vehicles if a fixed-route system is being used, Pumphrey said.