WALLA WALLA� -- At an open Valley Transit board meeting last night, board Chairman Gregg Loney began proceedings with a call for calm productivity.
"I want to set a tone for this meeting," he said. "We are trying to find a solution as we go forward."
Valley Transit has already made clear its financial shortfalls will not just go away. The agency has calculated its future at current rates of revenue, and has confirmed that by the end of the year only three months of operating reserve will be left -- after which, as much as 25 percent of the budget will have to be cut. Without preventive action, the shortfalls will force Valley Transit into service cuts that affect the mobility of valley residents.
Ed McCaw, finance administrator for Valley Transit made the position clear at a public hearing last week.
"We are in a dire financial situation," he said then. "We will be facing a $800,000 deficit this year."
When the situation came to light during a July finance meeting, Valley Transit began taking steps to involve the public. Three public hearings have been held to inform concerned customers and invite problem solving.
Thursday night, Valley Transit opened its usual board meeting to the public -- setting aside time to hear public comment and the collected findings of the hearings.
Dick Fondahn, general manager of Valley Transit, reported feelings from customers that Valley residents do not understand the importance of Valley Transit's services or the severity of the financial situation.
"The average citizen in Walla Walla doesn't understand how many people use the bus," he said. "We have the fifth highest productivity statewide."
For customers actually at the hearings, Fondahn reported a willingness to involve themselves out of genuine concern.
"Our customers need Valley Transit, they use Valley Transit and are willing to help," he said.
When the meeting opened up to public comment, several residents rose to share ideas and comment on their own concerns. One attendee, Mike Friedman, asked the board about the details of orchestrating a sales tax hike -- a revenue source that already provides Valley Transit $2.1 million annually and with a 0.3 percent increase could plug Valley Transit's deficit. According to Loney and board member Jerry Cummins, the issue would have to be filed by Dec. 26 and put to a vote Feb. 24. If passed, a tax hike would begin to provide revenue by next September. Cummins also wanted to make it clear that the election would cost additional money.
"To run a ballot measure in February, the cost would be $50,000 to bring the vote to the taxpayers. That is assuming that there is no other issue to split the cost and does not include campaigning," he said.
Another attendee brought up the likelihood of the measure being passed or failing, asking the board about possible reluctance in the past over such a hike. Cummins responded, reporting that he had seen resistance from local businesses concerned with their proximity to sales tax-free Oregon.
He said that increased sales tax can put local business at a disadvantage and that they had come to Valley Transit in the past to express this concern.
Despite the difficulties that could arise in bringing about a tax hike, people at the meeting showed their desire to push the measure forward. Noah Leavitt, a representative of the Faith Communities for Sustainability, promised his organization's support and announced a meeting next week to look at the details of getting a measure on the ballot.
Another attendee and longtime customer of Valley Transit who offered her support was visually impaired and had moved to Walla Walla specifically because of Valley Transit's services.
"I would be willing to go door to door to lobby for this measure," she said.
Others stood to offer their insight on solutions beyond a tax hike. The continuing theme was for Valley Transit to seek out less conventional solutions, to begin "thinking outside of the box," as Richard McFarland said.
His suggestions included developing a local support network -- something like "Friends of Valley Transit," setting up an "adopt a trolly" system in which individual donors cover maintenance costs of a single bus and using advertising at Valley Transit's location on Rose.
The board took note of McFarland's and other's suggestions, but some attendees, like one Valley Transit driver of 18 years, just needed to get personal concerns off of their chests.
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For community members interested in exploring fund-raising options for Valley Transit with Noah Leavitt and the Interfaith Coalition on Poverty next Tuesday, call him at 509-529-4080.