Activists, Politicians In Baton Rouge Advocate Throwing Taxpayers Under The Bus

In Louisiana’s capitol city there’s a fresh push afoot for new taxes.

Voters in East Baton Rouge Parish haven’t been in the mood to pay them for quite a while, mind you; it’s been several years since the last tax passed in the parish.

This time, though, a coalition of supporters of the city’s financially-busted Capitol Area Transit System have banded together in an effort to keep the bus service alive – with a sales tax hike.

The Baton Rouge Advocate reported…

An 18-member group has emerged to take on the task of ushering support and seeking a dedicated tax for the parish’s nearly bankrupt bus system.

Earlier this year, the mayor-appointed Blue Ribbon Commission studied and developed a series of recommendations that would provide long-term stability and improvements for the Capital Area Transit System.

The Baton Rouge Transit Coalition, which has many familiar faces from the Blue Ribbon Commission, announced Thursday it would take on the commission’s recommendations by campaigning for support from the public and working with elected officials.

“Ultimately, we have recommended that there must be a dedicated revenue stream to keep us from this endless cycle of insanity that we have found ourselves in year after year after year,” said the Rev. Raymond Jetson, a coalition member and the former chairman of the Blue Ribbon Commission.

CATS suffers from almost non-existent ridership, which is one reason why it never has any money. It did manage to score a half-dozen brand-new buses two months ago, though, thanks to a federal grant.

CATS is facing a $2.1 million deficit in a budget currently projected at $12.6 million. If short-term funds are not identified, CATS will either cut services by 46 percent next year or shut down in July.

CATS officials said they are holding out hope that the Metro Council will find more money for them in the $746 million 2012 city-parish budget set for approval Tuesday to save CATS.

One would think that cutting services by 46 percent should reduce the budget by something akin to that amount. Instead, cutting services by 46 percent only results in a 16.7 percent budget cut.

Seems like we have a finger on part of the problem right there.

But living within its means and providing the services that the market demands rather than what pressure groups and politicians want doesn’t seem to be part of the agenda. Not when there are cookie jars to be raided.

The Blue Ribbon Commission made several recommendations this summer, including the creation of a special taxing district that encompasses the areas in the parish currently served or expected to be served by CATS.

The district excludes Central, Zachary and the unincorporated area at the southeast tip of the parish.

The district, which requires state legislative approval, would allow CATS to levy a sales tax.

If the taxing district is approved, CATS will ask voters in 2012 to approve what is being estimated as a quarter-cent sales tax and four-mill property tax, based on the Blue Ribbon Commission’s recommendations.

The new transit coalition has already identified members of the state Legislature who have expressed interest in authoring a bill to create the special taxing district, coalition member Cassie Felder said. Felder said she wouldn’t name the legislators until their commitments were finalized.

Members of the coalition will lobby legislators to support the district.

The coalition will also work to raise funds and develop a campaign to educate the public about the benefits of supporting public transportation while mitigating the negative public opinion surrounding CATS.

The coalition is passing out pledge cards in the community to try to obtain commitments from individuals and groups who agree to support a tax to fund public transit.

Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle said she doesn’t think the tax election can come fast enough.

“The tax is a huge piece of this for CATS,” she said. “The sooner we address that, the better it’s going to be.”

In the short term, Marcelle said, some council members are poring through the budget to identify possible funds to give to CATS, but the council is also receiving competing requests from other parish agencies for financial help.

“Ultimately, I think the mayor (Mayor-President Kip Holden) is going to pull a rabbit out of his hat,” she said.

Sales taxes in East Baton Rouge Parish are already 9.0 percent, meaning a quarter-cent increase would make the rate 9.25 percent. In San Francisco sales taxes are 8.5 percent. In Los Angeles they’re 8.75 percent. In Boston it’s 6.25 percent. In Dallas, 8.25 percent. In Tampa, 7 percent.

And yet Baton Rouge somehow isn’t capable of running a bus system without finding rabbits in hats.

We’d suggest the issue with CATS isn’t that the people in Baton Rouge aren’t paying enough taxes for the bus system. It’s that our money is being squandered and CATS’ business model is broken. More tax dollars to prop up a loser won’t improve anything but real estate demand in Ascension and Livingston Parishes.

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