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September 5, 2012
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Editorial: Time for talk about taxes to get on board

The campaign to form a Douglas County transit district rolls along unencumbered by the problem that stopped a library district.

The problem is taxes.

Library backers last year talked forthrightly about taxes. The honest discussion made it clear that decently funding libraries will require a financial commitment from taxpayers and cities.

City councils gave the tax plan a mixed reception, county commissioners gave it a cold shoulder and the public never got to vote on forming a library district.

The manager of U-Trans, Toby Notenboom, has taken a different approach.

In his pitch for a transit district, higher taxes are a vague, far-off prospect.

He’s proposing voters first form a countywide transit district — without an increase in taxes or services.

Only later, when the economy improves, says Notenboom, voters could be asked to raise taxes for a bus system that serves more than the Interstate 5 corridor between Sutherlin and Riddle.

Notenboom hasn’t drawn up a budget or proposed a funding method. By setting aside the tough questions about finances, Notenboom has taken the sting out of forming another public agency to fund.

It’s a painless approach that’s apparently working well with city councils.

So far Notenboom has asked six city councils to endorse a May vote on forming a transit district. Four, including Roseburg, have said yes, while two are mulling it over. No council has given Notenboom an outright “no.” Ultimately, county commissioners will decide whether to put the question to voters. Support from cities would presumably influence commissioners.

If a transit district were formed, U-Trans would no longer be governed by the county. It would be managed instead by a seven-member elected board.

Notenboom says cutting out the county would streamline operations. But he acknowledges the savings would be small. Furthermore, he says the county and United Community Action Network, the nonprofit that operates U-Trans, have a great working relationship.

So the benefits of a transit district by itself would be marginal, at best.

The real significance is that a transit district would be able to seek from voters a permanent source of tax revenue to supplement fares, city contributions, and state and federal grants.

Notenboom downplays the possibility that the source would be property taxes. A property tax levy could cut into the tax-collecting powers of other districts, including the cities he’s courting.

A future transit board may think differently, however.

As alternatives to property taxes, Notenboom mentions an income tax or employer-paid payroll tax. Both proposals would stir a lot of discussion.

Before the move to form a transit district goes any further, city councilors need to think about where they’re going.

A transit district without more revenue would be meaningless. Forming one without an idea about what comes next would be equally meaningless.

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The News-Review Updated Sep 5, 2012 11:51AM Published Sep 24, 2012 08:45AM Copyright 2012 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.