Higgins: The Little Bus That Couldn’tWritten by Tim Higgins | | email@example.com
I have over the years in “Just Blowing Smoke” found the need to twist the fairy tale genre to make a point. It finally seemed time to do the same disservice to my columns here at the Toledo Free Press. And so …
Once upon a time in the magical land of Toodledeedoo, their lived a Little Bus that couldn’t. This wasn’t to say that this was a bad Little Bus, just one that failed in a lot of its original promise and purpose.
You see, no matter how hard it tried, it couldn’t produce a workable business plan, couldn’t tell us how many people were riding it, couldn’t explain why so many of the buses were running mostly empty, and couldn’t explain why it couldn’t connect key centers of its service areas without making the transit time unworkable by routing it through downtown. It couldn’t even explain why 80 percent of its revenues had to come from taxpayer financing rather than from the customers riding it.
What it could do though, was spend the money in got from tax levies. Even at that however, sometimes it couldn’t spend that money properly. So it should be of no surprise to anyone the last time one of its levies came up for renewal, the Little Bus said to itself, “You know, I need some money to help the group of people who are helping me to get my operating levy passed. I think I’ll lend them some.” And it did lend the ‘Citizens for TARTA’ $13,885 at 0 percent interest (a curious sum at a curious rate, that still stands without proper explanation).
But after thinking for a while the Little Bus thought that this might not be enough, and it couldn’t short-change the people who really like it. So it lent them some more money, this time on the much grander scale of $50,000.
When the State found out, it was very angry, especially since none of the money had been paid back. It said in fact that the Little Bus couldn’t lend its friends money for such purposes. In fact it said, the Ohio Revised Code (Section 9.03) specifically spelled out that, “no governing body of a political subdivision shall use public funds to support or oppose the passage of a levy or bond issue.” It told the Little Bus that couldn’t that it must get all the money back (if not from its friends, then from the guy who lent it) and couldn’t do this ever again. It even began the process of passing a new law to make such things criminal.
The Little Bus that couldn’t continued to have trouble keeping track of its money however. By 2012 in fact, that same State told the Little Bus that it couldn’t even properly audit its books. It seems that the Little Bus couldn’t produce a few “minor” documents like a listing of contracts over $25,000, the list of fixed asset purchases, or the most recent internal balance sheet even 14 months after the end of the fiscal year involved.
One of the biggest things that the Little Bus couldn’t do though, was keep running without coming to the voters every few years to renew the levies that kept it operating. It was this levy process itself, that “could and did” allow voters to make the Little Bus justify not only its existence, but the level of funding at which it operated. And with property values continuing to go down in the levied areas, it couldn’t get the money it used to.
But as early as 2008, the Little Bus began to see what it could do. The trick, it saw, was to avoid those pesky little Citizens and the declining property values that they couldn’t get away from, and see if it couldn’t instead get funding from a county-wide sales tax. Not only would this increase the revenue by about 53 percent from $16.7 million to $25.6 million (an increase that couldn’t hurt it), but it would mean never having to go back to voters to justify the money it received from a permanent sales tax. There are currently plans under study by the Little Bus to bring this plan to the November ballot.
Perhaps in order for this story (which has been written about before here in the TFP) to have a happy ending, this Little Bus that sometimes spends its money illegally, when it documents where it spends it at all, must once again be held true to form. If TARTA is to some day become the responsive and responsible public transportation system that it can and should be, it needs to be told (once again) that it’s the Little Bus that couldn’t … get this new tax passed.