The nearly bankrupt parish bus system could get its own special taxing district, which would provide dedicated funding that would almost triple its current budget.
The projection is based on a recommendation expected to be made to Mayor-President Kip Holden in June.
The recommendation came from the Blue Ribbon Commission — an independent group of community leaders charged with crafting solutions to the parish’s transit problems.
For the past two months, the 17-member panel, selected by faith-based community group Together Baton Rouge and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, has researched ways to improve the Capital Area Transit System to make it both usable for riders of need and desirable for “riders of choice” who already have transportation.
The commission agreed Wednesday on a variety of specific, targeted recommendations to present to Holden following a meeting to allow for some fine-tuning.
Among the recommendations is pursuing legislation to create a Capital Area Transit District that would include the majority of the parish. It would exclude the cities of Central and Zachary and some areas in the southwest part of East Baton Rouge Parish.
It would include all areas within the Baton Rouge city limits and other areas currently, and expected, to be served by CATS.
Local sales taxes are statutorily capped, and the parish has reached its limit. But having a special taxing district could allow CATS to levy a sales tax.
The boundaries of the proposed district also allows CATS to target voters in the areas where services are used.
Previously, the commission weighed the option of levying taxes either in the city limits or parishwide.
In October, a parishwide vote failed that would have created a 3.5-mill CATS property tax.
Commissioners noted that votes might be harder to come by in some incorporated areas of the parish where service is limited.
But a city-wide tax would exclude areas such as the Mall of Louisiana, where ridership is high.
The deadline to introduce new legislation has passed, however, so the city-parish will have to try to piggyback on another proposed law making its way through the Legislature in order to create the taxing district before a fall or spring election.
The commission also recommended that CATS pursue both a sales tax and a property tax. The estimated amount was a quarter-cent sales tax and a 4-mill property tax. But these amounts are likely to change because estimates depend on the boundaries of the new district.
The target amount being sought is $18 million, which would give CATS an annual budget of almost $30 million when rider fares and federal money are included.
CATS’ current budget is $12 million. The bus system is in danger of shutting down in October because of a lack of operating funds.
The commission considered a “broad matrix” of tax options, commission member Paul Douglas said, but it was ultimately limited by state caps and laws to either property or sales taxes.
“These were truly the only two options,” he said. “We really tried to strike a balance.”
The increased budget for CATS is tied to expectations for improved service, such as:
Decreasing bus wait times from 75 minutes to 15-20 minutes.
Changing routes to a more efficient grid system, rather than directing all routes through the Florida Boulevard terminal.
Overhauling bus stops with new shelters, benches and improving signage with detailed information.
Increasing the number of routes and adding buses.
Creating three express lines.
The recommendations will be presented to Holden in early June. The panel urged elections in either November or in February.
The commission also recommended changing the governance of CATS, by removing Metro Council oversight.
CATS is overseen by both a board of directors and the Metro Council.
“What the CATS board currently has authority over, ultimately the Metro Council has approval of that,” commissioner Meg Mahoney said. “That causes confusion to the accountability of the governing structure.”
The panel agreed to hold one more meeting June 2 to hammer out some details about what would happen if the Metro Council lost its authority over CATS.
Some members suggested that another board might have to be created to oversee the taxing district, or the existing CATS board may have to be retooled.
“If there is a dedicated revenue source, there will be a different level of accountability,” Mahoney said. “There will be more expectations from the public.”
Stripping the Metro Council of authority would require another legislative change, said John Carpenter, the mayor’s chief administrative officer.
Commission Chairman Raymond Jetson also took note of CATS’ immediate funding shortfalls, while cautioning the committee to stay focused on their specified task.
“While I have great empathy for the system, that’s not why I signed up for this, to fix CATS immediate problems,” he said. “The responsibility of this committee is to determine how we build for the future.”