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Transit sales tax discussed at forum, legislative authorization won't come easy


WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAU) - About sixty people attended a panel discussion about the future of funding bus service in the greater Wausau area. The panel included Rabbi Dan Danson from NAOMI, Metro Ride Director Greg Seubert, Weston Village Administrator Daniel Guild, and Wausau Area Transit Commission member and city alderman Keene Winters.

Area lawmakers Senator Jerry Petrowski, State Representative Mandy Wright, and State Representative John Spiros also commented at the forum.

Seubert says Metro Ride has cut over thirty percent of its services in the last couple of years, which has led to predictable losses in ridership. “When we diminished services, we predicted a loss of ridership, and all of that has happened, so my guess is if we add the service back, the ridership will come along.”

Most of the discussion was on Wausau’s proposed one-tenth of one percent sales tax proposal to fund the transit system. If this were done, Keene Winters says this would offset property taxes now used for public transit. “In the last budget that just passed, there are state rules that say that municipalities, if they add a fee for service, they have to count that toward their revenue cap.”

The one-tenth of a percent sales tax would require legislative action and the Governor’s signature to authorize local governments to charge the tax. Weston’s Dan Guild knows that is a difficult task right now. “We’re going through a very contentious time with government in general. People’s appetite for government, whether at the local level, state level, federal level is certainly exacerbated to a breaking point. Finding solutions (is) going to require compromise from a lot of different parties.”

State Senator and Transportation Committee Chairman Jerry Petrowski told the panel the issue is important, but believes they will have to find another avenue to fund transit because creating a new tax isn’t going to have enough support in Madison. “I think when this goes through the committee process, or anything like that, the chairman is going to look at this and say it’s going to cost us all of these millions of dollars to change the system that we presently have, and I don’t believe there’s support to do it, so I think we need to look for whatever options are out there. I think their issues are important, but we need to find the right option.”

Representative John Spiros was looking for more than one possible funding idea at the forum, but didn’t get that. “I think there’s other things we can look at. I was hoping for a little bit more ideas with the forum. We’ll just have to continue to take a look, but I’m not a fan of increasing any type of tax.”

Representative Mandy Wright told the audience she has concerns about how the proposed sales tax would affect small businesses and how it may take about three years to implement it.

Keene Winters authored the one-tenth of a percent sales tax option with Daniel Guild. He’s asking the state legislators to change the law and give local governments some autonomy to create the special tax district. The Wausau concept is also proposed for Outagamie and Winnebago counties, another area where public transit is enduring big cuts.

With the current political climate in Madison, it appears any attempt to create a new tax will be dead on arrival. Suebert says at least the discussion about future transit funding is taking place. “This starts a dialogue. If it’s not this proposal, if it’s not an RTA proposal, I’m interested in whatever proposal is out there. We may not have the answer here, but we’re making suggestions and beginning that dialogue.”