Voters reject measure by more than 3,000 vote margin, places Columbia County public transit service in limbo

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia County Rider's transit center in St. Helens is where many routes originate, but activity may slow at the transit center as service cuts loom. Updated Nov. 8.

A property tax to fund Columbia County's public transit system has been rejected by voters.

Of voters who weighed in, 63.3% rejected Measure 5-277, which would have funded Columbia County Rider with a permanent property tax of 18 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $36 for a property assessed at $200,000.

"Obviously it's disappointing," CC Rider Transit Director Todd Wood said. "I understand from a lot of people, they're just frankly tired of paying taxes, and I can't blame anyone for that."

St. Helens resident Aaron Mutt was among the nearly 7,200 voters who went against the measure. "For me, it came down to the math," Mutt said.

CC Rider provides an average 73,000 rides per year, according to Wood, and had $2.5 million in expenses over the last fiscal year, which equates to $34 per person, per ride.

"I'm not a big fan of government having too much money to play with — especially when it's my money," Mutt said.

The rural nature of Columbia County has been a struggle for public transit. Ongoing route revisions have attempted to balance providing services throughout the county with finding routes that receive enough riders to justify the cost of service.

"I expected it (the measure) to fail. I don't think it's all that good of a fit out here," Mutt said.

"I knew a property tax was a long-shot... what surprised me was the gap. I thought it would be closer," Wood said. "We did not have the level of support from our community leaders that I was hoping."

For months, county commissioners and CC Rider staff have said that major cuts would be necessary if the measure didn't pass.

"Now I'm in a situation where the commission has to choose to either shut the system down, or we have to make some significant cuts come December," Wood said.

"We've been doing this for 15 years and it's never been comfortable," Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller said at a Nov. 6 commission work session. "(We) have always decided it was worth doing whatever we possibly could to salvage our transportation system at whatever level we could."

Leading up to the election, misinformation swirled on social media regarding CC Rider's current financing, ridership numbers, and how the proposed tax would work.

CC Rider's primary funding source has been state grants, which are ultimately financed by taxpayers, though the transit system has not had any dedicated tax funding.

Uncertain costs made it difficult to show voters exactly what they would get from their tax funding.

This summer, CC Rider's contracted service provider, MTR Western, notified the county that they would need a rate increase just a few months after signing a new contract with the county. Commissioners agreed to increase the hourly rate if the ballot measure passed, hoping that MTR would be motivated to actively campaign for the measure. The current rate is just under $58 per hour.

As the measure has failed, the future relationship between MTR and CC Rider is again thrust into uncertainty.

"We have a very uncertain future, if any future at all," Wood said of CC Rider.

Of the more than 38,000 registered voters in Columbia County, 33.95% submitted ballots in the election, according to the Oregon Secretary of State. That figure is higher than the statewide turnout of 30.51%.

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