CATS plan has fatal flaw

CATS plan has fatal flaw

What are you to do when faced with the following scenario? 1) You ardently support the goal of a vibrant and sustainable mass transportation system; 2) you support the implementation aspects of the proposed plan to achieve that goal; but 3) you abhor changes made to the financing of the plan simply to get the issue before the voters six months earlier than initially scheduled.

That scenario is my reality when it comes to the 10-year, $180 million tax plan to sustain, grow and—now—save what's allegedly East Baton Rouge's parishwide mass transportation system.

The plan—crafted after months of discussions by both a Blue Ribbon Commission and a transit coalition, along with online polling and numerous public meetings—is a fine one that should bring the parish long-term benefits on a variety of transportation and economic fronts. Also worth noting is that, as details of the plan emerged late last year, members of both the commission and coalition stressed the tax package was about improving and growing the Capital Area Transit System, not solving short-term financial problems. “We're not here to save CATS,” commission chairman and coalition member Raymond Jetson told me last December. “We're here to build a sustainable mass transportation system.”

To pay for this transportation plan, it was decided to create a special taxing district encompassing all the geography presently being served by CATS and to ask district voters to approve a 4-mill property tax and a quarter-cent sales tax in November of this year. I wondered aloud last December, during a meeting with the plan's supporters, if they weren't creating a gerrymandered district to increase the odds of passage, but was told it was being done out of fairness. “Why should people who aren't served by CATS pay for this system?” was the answer I was given at the time. “If other parts of the parish later wish to be served by CATS, they can later vote to join the district.”

To create a district with the ability to levy sales taxes requires approval from the state Legislature, something proponents were going to request during this year's session. They were also going to request legislative approval to allow the possibility of CATS, with its $12 million annual budget, entering into a joint partnership with the East Baton Rouge Parish School System and its $26 million transportation budget.

I am no fan of sales taxes, but decided to support the plan and its funding mechanism because mass transportation is a parishwide issue and at least those living outside the district would financially contribute something to the growth of transit when they bought goods from retailers located inside the district's boundaries.

The proposal, to me, took a fatal turn in January when the Metro Council balked at solving CATS' $2 million funding shortfall, prompting transit officials to declare buses would stop running in July if a financial lifeline was not found. Consequently, the tax plan was changed so that it could do something proponents never intended—save CATS.

In a move designed only to enable CATS, should the tax pass, to borrow money before July against tax revenues to be collected in 2013, proponents moved the tax vote from November to April, thus letting the mayor and the council—all facing election runs this fall—off the financial hook.

The six-month move meant several changes to the funding mechanism of the plan, including 1) having to go with pre-existing taxing districts (incorporated Baton Rouge, Zachary and Baker) that knock some of CATS' biggest benefactors—including Towne Center, Perkins Rowe and the Mall of Louisiana, where an express route is proposed—out of the district, meaning each will pay nothing to have employees and customers delivered to their respective doorsteps, and 2) dumping the sales tax component in favor of a 10.6 mill property tax. Moreover, voters don't know if a joint partnership with the public school system is a possibility, nor do they know how much, if anything, CATS will charge to entities outside the district that request bus service, such as the soon-to-open L'Auberge Casino.

Frankly, that's too many negative changes made for no other reason than to solve a problem this tax plan was never meant to address. Further, I refuse to accept that the ends—an improved and sustainable mass transit system—justify the means of a now fatally flawed funding mechanism.

My position is to oppose this tax in April and then support the tax, as originally proposed and funded, either in November or some future election.

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