Thursday, March 12, 2015

Polk County Transit Blames Service Cuts on Referendum Defeat But They Knew It Was A Hard Sell To Begin With

For whatever reason, Polk County has had three transit agencies serving their county: Lakeland Area Mass Transit, Winter Haven Area Transit and Polk County Transit. Each of these transit agencies had been operating independently.

In 2010 Polk County put a half cent transit only sales tax referendum on the ballot. It was overwhelmingly defeated 68 to 32%. 

Since then, an effort has been underway to merge these three transit agencies into a single agency, Polk County Transit, to save money and gain efficiencies. They've already merged some activities such as consolidation of the Transit Call Center.

At the same time this merger activity was occurring to reduce costs, Polk County decided to put another sales tax referendum on the ballot last year asking for more money for transit. Shouldn't the merger and consolidation be completed first before asking taxpayers for more money? This time around they threw in a carrot of some roads with the transit and asked for a full cent sales tax increase. 

Roads was not the issue in Polk County. The commute time is about 25 minutes, right at the national average. Unlike Hillsborough County that is proliferated with failing, deficient roads, Polk has few F-rated roads. Polk County has already maxed out the use of the local option gas tax.

The 2014 MyRide referendum went down in a worse defeat than the 2010 referendum, 72 to 28%.

Now the Lakeland Ledger is reporting that there will be service cuts and personnel cuts to transit in Polk County. The Polk County transit Executive Director, Tom Philips, stated in this article:
The service reduction is the result of the failure of the My Ride/My Road sales tax referendum in November and the need to fund ongoing bus fleet replacements, Phillips said.
We remember that Mr. Phillips was being praised at one of the Hillsborough Policy Leadership Group meetings for all the public engagement and outreach he did for the referendum. Phillips was also brought to a HART board meeting to present his outreach effort.

However, Phillips and Polk County transit knew exactly what they faced at the ballot box. They took a poll in 2013, included the poll on their MyRide website, and this is what they found:
Polk County 2013 transit poll
The highest priorities were jobs and education. Only 4.3 % felt that bus and transit service had gotten worse over the last few years. Note that Polk County is a growing county whose population grew over 24% since 2000.

Some more information from their 2013 transit poll:
Polk County 2013 transit poll

Over 87% had not used transit in Polk County in the last two years and less than 18% thought it a high priority to expand and improve bus and transit service in Polk County. The  question asking the best way to provide additional funding for transit improvements should have been a warning to the transit agency about asking for a sales tax increase. Over 44% stated additional funding should come from rider fares and less than 15% said additional funding should from a higher sales tax.

With polling such as this, they knew they had a huge hill to climb to convince Polk County voters and taxpayers to pay higher taxes for transit, even throwing in some road money too.

Perhaps those polled knew more information than the transit agency thought. According to the 2012 National Transit Database, transit fare box recovery is very low in Polk County:

Certainly Polk County Transit can do better than only recovering 11% of their operating costs through their fare box. Hillsborough's transit agency, recovers twice as much at the fare box, Increasing the fare box recovery reduces the amount of taxpayer subsidies needed to operate. 

Polk County transit knew going in to last years referendum they were going to have a hard time selling the voters and taxpayers to pass it. Now they are stating they are cutting service.

Is Polk County doing anything to increase their fare box recovery? Those polled thought raising fares was the best way to provide additional transit funding. Will Polk County raise their transit fares that could perhaps mitigate their service cuts? Has Polk County done all their due diligence to ensure they are operating as efficiently as they can?

The overwhelming defeats of all the referendums in the Tampa Bay area to raise sales tax for transit, and the insight to voter sentiment in the 2013 Polk County transit poll, make a strong statement.

That is - voters are not going to vote to raise taxes on themselves for things they do not consider a high priority, may never use, do not see value in, is very high cost and would benefit very few.
And that sentiment can also apply to sports stadiums, baseball stadiums and other lower priorities.

No comments:

Post a Comment