RTA Tax Levy Dies in Committee, Mayor Trevor Elkins Lone Voice of Support


Clevelanders for Public Transit rally (7/23/2018). - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • Clevelanders for Public Transit rally (7/23/2018).
Newburgh Heights Mayor Trevor Elkins couldn't even get a second when he introduced a motion to place a sales tax levy on the November ballot Tuesday morning at a Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) board committee meeting. The motion died thereby.

With seven total board members present, Elkins presented the levy's case. He argued for a four-tenths-of-a-percent sales tax increase over 10 years. That increase would yield an estimated $73 million per year — costing the average county resident about $1 per week — and would restore transit service to 2015 levels while also reducing fares and chipping away at the agency's considerable state-of-good-repair backlog.

But Elkins' colleagues all voiced opposition. Karen Gabriel Moss, an Armond Budish appointee to the board, worried that Elkins' proposal was arbitrary. Why four tenths of a percent and not five, she wondered? Why 10 years and not eight? She said, moreover, that if Richard Cordray were to be elected Governor in November, she was optimistic that he would make good on his recent campaign promise to invest in infrastructure, including public transit.

Moss said that if Cleveland passed a levy, the state would be much more likely to pass over Cleveland and invest in other cities' transit systems. (This was a suggestion that Elkins, and many of the transit activists in the audience at RTA's W. 6th headquarters, found risible.)

Mayor Jackson appointee Valarie McCall thanked Elkins for his commitment, but reiterated statements that she has made in recent months about the failure and disarray of RTA's leadership, (in which term she included the board). She still felt that RTA was not ready to ask voters for additional funding. For one thing, she said, she'd be personally unable to articulate what a transit levy would accomplish — "We don't even know what we're going after" — and said that the board must make a good faith effort to reach out to communities where they are when they pursue a levy in the future.

Mayor Trevor Elkins
  • Mayor Trevor Elkins
Despite Elkins' opinion that RTA should not be afraid to fail at the ballot, and indeed, could apply lessons from a failed campaign to an effort next year, McCall said that the agency simply had to do more due diligence before it asked voters for more money.

A lack of due diligence was probably the primary objection to a ballot measure this year.

South Euclid Mayor Georgine Welo, an appointee of the regional mayors association, said that she'd received an email about a parking tax that she found promising and said should be considered. ("Dead on arrival," murmured a rider in the audience.) Had other funding mechanisms been fully considered and vetted, Welo asked?

"Raising money is going to take time," she said. "I personally get questions about who's going to be acting GM. Have we really done the due diligence? Do people trust us enough to give us more money?"

Mayor Dennis Clough, Board President, said much the same.

"You really only want to go to the ballot once," he said. "I'd rather not try to learn from my mistakes by putting something on prematurely. I'd like to do more due diligence. We're not there. We're just not there."

Rev. Charles Lucas said he's "100 percent" in favor of taking a measure to voters, "just not now." And Sonny Nardi said he disagreed with the terms of the proposal, preferring a five-year measure to a 10-year to prove to voters that RTA could be accountable with taxpayer dollars. While Elkins argued that a 10-year levy would provide more stability for the agency, he ultimately proposed a six-year levy as a concession to Nardi.

Despite Valarie McCall's efforts to characterize the board as being in agreement on big-picture issues — "I don't want this to seem like one colleague is for something and nine others are against it; that's not accurate," she said — the discussion was very much a back-and-forth between Elkins arguing the merits of the levy and his six colleagues in attendance expressing reservations.

Elkins said it was frustrating, for example, to hear his board colleagues speak so passionately about the need for due diligence.

"In this county, we have spent an insane amount of taxpayer dollars on funding for professional sports facilities," Elkins said. "If due diligence and research matter to us, we would never have done that because all of the research, right up to the Federal Reserve, says spending money on those facilities does not ever generate an economic return. Does research and data really matter to us? Only when it's convenient, it appears."

But the board was in agreement on RTA's desperate need for funding. In the succinct phrasing of McCall: "We have needs. We have needs. We have needs!"

Clough released a statement shortly after the meeting saying that the time for a ballot measure would "likely" be in 2019. He said the board agreed on a number of matters. Among them:
Customers who rely on public transit to get to work, school and healthcare must be seen a priority by community leaders, whose influence on their behalf can help make the difference.

A greater investment in public transit is the right course of action – locally, statewide and nationally.

The need is urgent and the clock is ticking, but we should only move forward when all the right pieces are in place.

Much more work needs to be done to identify the possible sources of funding that will allow us to define and to deliver what the community wants and needs.

It is critical that we allow for significant public input into this process. Voters will have important questions that deserve specific answers. We need to be prepared with those answers.
But the feeling voiced by the rider coalition Clevelanders for Public Transit was that 2018 was the ideal year for a ballot measure. Voter turnout is expected to be strong in Cuyahoga County, the state's Democratic stronghold, with both Senator Sherrod Brown and Governor Richard Cordray seeking election.

"Furthermore, even if unsuccessful, this election offers an opportunity to revise a proposal and go back to voters in a future election," CPT said in a statement, echoing Elkins. "The continued lack of funding will result in additional cuts and fare increases for the 150,000 Cuyahoga County residents that use transit." 

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