A bill written to fundamentally change the Salem Area Mass Transit District cleared another hurdle Monday by achieving unanimous support, albeit hesitant for some, from an Oregon House committee.
Written with Cherriots specifically in mind, the bill would give Oregon’s governor the authority to appoint community members to the board of directors and would grant the board, in seven years, the ability to impose a tax to fund transit improvements.
These changes would align Salem’s transit district’s structure with Lane Transit District in Eugene and Tri-Met in Portland. The bill is designed specifically to change the Salem Area Mass Transit District because it is the only district in the state with this particular structure.
The Senate passed the bill last week without a vote against. It will now go to the full House.
“We believe this is the best course for developing a really strong future for this particular transit district,” Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett told the House Committee on Transportation Policy.
Currently, people living in the district elect candidates for the board and the board must put to voters any tax it wants to create. The most recent attempt at creating such a tax was in fall 2015 when a 0.21 percent employer payroll tax proposal was soundly defeated.
Much of the hesitancy among at least four members of the committee revolved around concerns that the bill would take power away from local voters.
“We need to be careful how much local control we take and hand off to the head of the state of Oregon,” said Ron Noble, R-McMinnville.
Bennett said in response to those concerns that the appointment process would allow the governor to select individuals with varying experiences and backgrounds, including business leaders, seniors, and advocates.
A Senate amendment to the bill added during the first week of the short session would require the governor to seek appointment recommendations from one or more local business and civic groups. Current directors would be able to finish out their terms.
Rep. Richard Vial, R-Scholls, said he was “puzzled” by the appointment proposal, even though that’s the policy within other transit districts. He didn’t see how the governor was more qualified to judge individuals for a position on the board of directors than thelocal electorate, or even the mayor of Salem.
“I just still have not heard a reason why an appointed board is better than an elected board,” Vial said.
The other aspect of the bill that lawmakers questioned was the presence of a seven-year moratorium before the board could implement any taxes.
There were a few explanations for this: It was a compromise that allowed the bill to get finished; it will allow citizens and businesses to have input on any tax conversations; and those years would allow the board to see how much money it really had available and how much it might need.
Cherriots has yet to receive funds from last year’s massive state transportation package and it will be some time before that money is fully put to use.
Bob Krebs, president of the Cherriots board of directors, told the committee that among their priorities is reinstating weekend and evening bus services, which have been absent for some time.
Inadequate funding is largely to blame for those missing routes and times, Krebs said.
Complicating matters is that Salem is the only transit district in the state that is funded primarily through property tax, said Nick Williams, CEO of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce.
But the tax debate is a secondary issue, Williams said. It is a tool that the board could use later on if needed. The bill is about making the transit district’s structure make sense.
“We’re just trying to get Salem caught up with the rest of the state,” he said.