MONTESANO — Debbie Collins used to have a full-time job with Grays Harbor Transit, driving the bus that so many count on to head to Olympia. Her husband used to have a full-time job with Transit, too.
Then, in September, her husband was laid off and her hours were cut down to about 20 hours a week.
The Montesano residents say their budgets have been tight and they’re trying to get by. And they’re afraid that more cuts could be coming to Grays Harbor Transit, which may lead to the elimination of her now part-time position.
Transit Director Mark Carlin says that future budgets for Transit are looking pretty tight, especially as grant dollars continue to dry up on the state and federal levels.
In the wake of declining revenue and fewer grant dollars, the Grays Harbor Transit Authority cut Transit’s budget by $800,000 this past August and is asking the voters to increase sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent. That means on a $10 purchase, it would cost a penny.
As of September, the Transit Authority eliminated all of the runs to Centralia, all weekend service and all holiday service. The Transit Authority also eliminated free transfers between buses as a means to increase fares and laid off seven employees, including mechanics and drivers. Carlin said the plan had been to lay off eight employees, but an extra driver was needed.
“This means that a family can no longer use the bus to go to church,” Collins says. “Persons with disabilities needing to use the grocery store on Saturday have to do all their shopping earlier in the week. People have been devastated.”
Carlin said that he figured that Transit’s vanpool service would see more use, particularly for those who work in the hospitality industry out on the beaches and need to be to work on Saturdays and Sundays.
“We’ve had a few inquiries, but no takers,” Carlin said. “I’m not sure how they’re getting to work other than using carpools.”
If the sales tax measure passes, it would provide $855,000 to Transit’s budget. But the money wouldn’t start to be collected until next year, which means most of the cuts would have to stay in place until early 2015.
“Our goal here, depending on the Transit Board’s action, is to restore some kind of weekend service when we have the money in place in 2015,” Carlin said.
“We’ll have some time to figure out our exact strategy and what services to bring back,” Transit said. “We’ll be able to match our routes and times to fit people’s needs on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Union members have been spearheading efforts to get the public to support the sales tax increase.
Collins says she’s been doorbelling at just about every door she can.
“I’m finding that people don’t understand how just dependent others are on the services Grays Harbor Transit provides, especially for the elderly and those with disabilities,” Collins said on her lunch break after driving a dial-a-ride shuttle in Ocean Shores. “They say to shop locally. Well, we have people who do want to shop locally, but can’t get out of the house to do it and need our help.
“I think people are very nervous about what’s coming up,” Collins said. “I’m hoping the people in our community will support Transit so we can get weekend service back. It’s about our community. … I really wish our businesses would step up, write letters and support this.”
Jaime Jamtaas says he uses Transit’s service to go to the grocery store and visit his family. Jamtaas, a former firefighter and paramedic, has been disabled since 1990 and uses both the general bus system and the dial-a-ride service. During warmer, drier months he’s not so dependent on transit, as he’s able to use his motorized wheelchair to travel short distances — so he hasn’t yet felt the effects of recent schedule changes eliminating all weekend service.
“When they have the voting going on, I hope people realize how important it is,” Jamtaas told The Daily World. “Even if people don’t use the buses, it’s a really important service for the disabled population. And it’s really cheap, that 0.1 percent. I really don’t necessarily want to move out of Aberdeen because I was born and raised here. I’ve lived here most of my life. But with the possibility of not being able to see my family, I’m thinking of moving to Olympia.”
On Saturday, Collins joined other members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1765 along with County Commissioner Frank Gordon waving signs in Aberdeen. Signs are also dotting the Harbor’s communities, including Montesano.
“We’re going to do what we can to fight for our riders,” she said.
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. If the new sales tax proposal is approved, the rate would be 8.63 percent in Aberdeen and 8.5 percent everywhere else.
The big question is whether Aberdeen voters — that city has the largest percentage of the county’s population — will come out and support another sales tax measure so quickly after approving their last one. Sixty-three percent of Aberdeen voters approved the last increase.
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.