Grays Harbor voters gave a resounding thumbs up to steer some tax dollars toward buses and emergency vehicles Tuesday, when they voted in favor of funding for the Grays Harbor Transit system and for two new ambulances for the East County’s Fire District 5.
Grays Harbor Transit Authority’s Proposition 1 — which would increase the sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent countywide to help fund the struggling bus system — is passing by a wide margin with 9,687 votes approving the measure, to only 3,999 against. That’s a margin of just about 71 percent to 29 percent.
Meanwhile, the East County’s Fire District 5, which hasn’t had a bond measure approved since the mid-1990s, according to Fire Chief Dan Prater, can likely start shopping for two spanking-new ambulances. Voters in the fire district are approving the measure by a margin of 714 votes to 313 or 69.5 percent to 30.5 percent.
There is a small catch there, though. In order for that bond-measure vote to be certified, the election must draw at least 40 percent of turnout from the most recent general election — the 2012 presidential election, which brought out relatively big numbers.
Prater was feeling pretty positive Tuesday night, as the turnout number was already at 38.1 percent of the past turnout, and no votes have yet to be counted from any of the county’s drop boxes or those mailed in the past couple of days.
“I think it’s the first time we’ve had a bond approval since 1994, so I’m very pleased with that,” said Prater on Tuesday night. “As of right now, we’re very, very happy and pleased and keeping our fingers crossed.”
Prater said he was getting congratulatory text messages from other fire officials in the region.
“They know this was a very big deal for us,” said Prater. “It’s going to help us greatly if it happens. This is the number one need for Fire District 5 — not just us but for the East County EMS system.”
As for Gray Harbor Transit, Mark Carlin, manager of the bus system, said he’s “very pleased” with the news and thanked voters for their support.
“It’s awesome news and it’s great to see people showing support for their local transit,” Carlin said. “The last several months have been painful for everyone, our riders and our governing body with all the cuts.”
The Grays Harbor Transit Board voted in July to eliminate all weekend service, with cuts going into effect at the end of September. The transit authority had been outspending revenues by about $800,000 each year, and the service cuts saved enough money to keep Grays Harbor Transit running, but only on weekdays.
The 0.1 percent sales tax increase will likely generate about $855,000 each year — enough to get weekend buses up-and-running again at some level.
But Carlin said riders shouldn’t expect changes straight away. Grays Harbor Transit won’t see the fruits of the tax increase until June of 2014. Carlin said the transit board will spend the next few months preparing a new service plan, and service changes will come in early 2015.
Grays Harbor Transit Board President Jack Durney, also the mayor of Hoquiam, was pleased with the results. He said the sales tax increase should keep transit afloat until the economy improves.
“Things turned out pretty well, so we’ll keep doing what we need to do until we get that money flowing in,” Durney said. “I’m really happy with the support voters shower for our drivers and our riders.”
Durney said he hopes to decrease the sales tax again once the state and federal governments restore some transit funding.
Even with high Grays Harbor unemployment, Carlin said he had no doubts that the transit measure would pass. He said union members, drivers and passengers were all very involved in raising awareness for the measure. Karen Stites, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1765 and a Grays Harbor Transit employee, headed up the campaign.
“The union and the employees all worked so hard,” Carlin said. “They were passing out yard signs, speaking to riders. It was just a huge effort on everyone’s part.”
The current countywide sales tax is 8.4 percent. In February, Aberdeen voters increased their sales tax by 0.13 percent to help pay for road projects, so the tax there is the highest in the county at 8.53 percent. When the sales tax increase is certified and implemented by the state Department of Revenue, the rate would be 8.63 percent in Aberdeen and 8.5 percent everywhere else.
The last time the county’s sales tax went up was in 2010 to benefit substance abuse and mental health programs. That was done without a vote of the people. The county commissioners at the time were empowered to raise the sales tax with just a majority vote.
The real question will be, how will other jurisdictions now see this sales tax increase as an entry point to push their own sales tax proposals?
Council members in Elma are already discussing a potential sales tax increase to send to the voters to get more money for roads.
The other year, County Commissioner Herb Welch had pushed for a sales tax increase to generate more money for criminal justice programs. Welch dropped the proposal because criminal justice leaders were worried residents would vote against it without a clear plan.
There’s also been talk in recent years of a sales tax increase proposal to benefit disaster preparedness programs in the wake of the December 2007 storm.
Amelia Dickson of The Daily World contributed to this story.