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"Voters approve tax, bus service continues"
"The buses are back.On Tuesday, Island County voters cast a collective vote in support of Island Transit, approving a 0.3 percent sales tax hike for the transit system.The $1.6 million the tax hike represents will mostly fill the budgetary hole at Island Transit created by Initiative 695. The initiative slashed car tab prices, as well as Washington's public transit budgets, when voters approved the measure in November.In the aftermath of the I-695 vote, Island Transit ended its Saturday bus service and was looking to make drastic weekday service reductions later this year. The new sales tax, in addition to another 0.3 percent sales tax approved in 1983, will bring the transit system's 2000 budget to 80 percent of its 1999 budget.Island County residents gave resounding support to the tax hike, with an unofficial 59 percent of the total 6,580 votes cast coming up yes in favor of transit. Martha Rose, Island Transit's director, said Thursday that heavy support from South and Central Whidbey made the difference.Thank you, thank you, thank you South Whidbey, Rose said. Even as staffers in the Island County Auditor's Office were counting the last 350 transit ballots Thursday afternoon, it was business as usual for bus drivers on their regular routes. For the 4 p.m. run at the Clinton ferry dock, some commuters climbed aboard for a short trip to the Clinton park and ride, while others settled in for the long trip to Oak Harbor.Bill Hocksberger, one of the afternoon drivers, was all smiles when his regulars boarded the bus. Hocksberger retired Friday, a move that would have eased staff reductions had the sales tax measure failed at the polls. But many drivers would still have been laid off if the tax measure had failed.As the situation stands now, Rose said, Island Transit must hire a number of new drivers before it can start Saturday service again.We're going to get Saturday going as soon as possible, she said.Riders at the ferry dock were pleased to know that their ride to work would continue to run. Amanda Howell, who works at Shirley's restaurant on the dock, said she would have hated to lose her ride.I've very glad because I'm without a car right now, Howell said. But some Island County citizens who opposed the tax were disappointed after the votes were tallied. Reece Rose (no relation to Martha), campaign manager for Citizens for Fair Transit, said her group preferred to see a fare box installed aboard the buses. There is no reason, she said, for all Island County taxpayers to foot the bill for bus riders. We don't want this to be an entitlement, she said. Martha Rose said Island Transit welcomes continued input from the Fair Transit group. She said a years-old debate over whether to charge fares aboard buses -- one objective of the Fair Transit group -- will undoubtedly continue, even with the new tax support. The transit system will have to take some budget-cutting measures over the next few months, since the new tax does not give the system the same amount of funding it was used to. Those cuts will show up in a few of the system's existing routes.On South Whidbey, the Scatchet Head-Langley feeder route could be cut back to one bus every other hour. On North Whidbey, routes 2, 3, and 9 might be combined. Martha Rose said Island Transit will not make any changes until it holds community meetings in the areas that might be affected by route changes.The sales tax increase will not take effect for four to five months because the state needs time to notify Island County businesses of the change.The only other issue on the election ballot Tuesday was in Oak Harbor where the school district was trying to pass a maintenance and operations levy. It needed 60 percent approval to pass but didn't even hit 50 percent. Oak Harbor hasn't passed a major school levy since the 1970s.Bus tax, by the numbersCountywide, 59 percent of the 6,580 voters who cast ballots Tuesday in the Island Transit election approved of a sales tax hike to fund the transit system. Broken down by precincts, South Whidbey had the highest approval rating at more than 77 percent. Unincorporated North Whidbey voters turned out in the greatest numbers, but 52 percent of its 1,684 voters cast ballots against increased transit funding.South Whidbey - 77.5% yes, 22.5% noCentral Whidbey - 73% yes, 27% noCamano - 57% yes, 43% no North Whidbey - 48% yes, 52% noOak Harbor - 54.5% yes, 45.5% no "