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Eighth percent sales tax for public transportation to be on November 12 ballot

At their Tuesday meeting, Norman City Council voted unanimously to put a 1/8 percent sales tax to help fund the City's newly acquired Public Transportation System on the November 12 election ballot. 

If approved, this sales tax would replace a portion of Cleveland County's expiring 1/4 percent sales tax in April 2020 and go to a dedicated City public transportation fund.  This revenue would help to fill a $2.2 million annual funding gap, without raising current sales tax levels.

Public transportation services are very important to the quality of life in a metropolitan city of the size and character of Norman. Many residents depend on Norman's public transportation system to get to work, run errands or even go to a doctor's appointment. 

In the last Fiscal Year, 300,861 rides were given on fixed-route buses, and 32,412 paratransit rides were given to residents with limited mobility or another disability that makes it difficult to access a fixed-route bus stop. In July 2019, the University of Oklahoma transferred operations of the system, formerly known as CART, to the City of Norman.

“Great cities have great public transportation,” said Mayor Breea Clark. “I am excited about the opportunity Norman now has to make the bus system our own, but that opportunity arrived with a hefty price tag. So many of our residents, especially those from the seniors, students, disability and veterans communities, rely on bus services as their primary source of transportation. Successful passage of this initiative will best position us to adjust and expand our services to better meet the needs of our community. Without seeing an increase in sales tax above the current rate, Norman has the chance to continue to invest in itself and the future of public transit in our city.”

The cost to maintain and operate this bus system, not including the campus-only routes that OU operates, is approximately $5.3 million per year. The City's major sources of funding for the system are an annual $2 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority and a contribution from the City's General Fund, budgeted at $1.1 million in Fiscal Year 2019-2020, leaving a $2.2 million annual shortfall.

If approved, this would raise an estimated $2.5 million each year that would go into a special fund to be used only on Norman's Public Transportation System. When added to the $2 million FTA grant and the City's $1.1 million General Fund contribution, this sales tax revenue would cover the cost of operations and maintenance with about $300,000 left over for reinvestment in the system. That surplus could be used for things like expanded services, improved accessibility or technology upgrades. 

An easier way to think of this may be in terms of dollars. Cleveland County's current sales tax, which is expiring, amounts to 25 cents for every $100 spent in Norman. Council is asking voters for half of that or 12.5 cents for every $100 spent in Norman that would go back into the community for Public Transportation needs. Collection of this 1/8 percent sales tax would go into effect as the County's sales tax expires, effectively not raising current tax rates. 

If voters approve the ordinance on the ballot on November 12, then by law the City may only spend money raised from the 1/8 percent sales tax on public transportation systems or public transportation system-related costs – such as bus repair and refueling facilities, replacement buses, and improved handicapped accessibility at bus stops. 

Additionally, the ordinance states that if the Regional Transportation Authority of Central Oklahoma, of which Norman is a member, funds public bus operations in the city by another funding source, then this one will expire. That means the City of Norman will only collect the 1/8 percent sales tax to spend on only public transportation needs for only as long as it is needed.