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Buses pull in and out of the CATS (Capital Area Transit System) terminal at 22nd Street and Florida Blvd., Tuesday, May 15, 2018.Tuesday, May 15, 2018.

The campaign to renew a property tax that makes up the bulk of the Baton Rouge bus system’s $30 million budget is officially underway.

Led by the Capital Area Transit System, the initiative urges voters in Baton Rouge and Baker to pass an Oct. 9 ballot measure that would extend the tax by another decade.

The campaign highlights progress CATS says it made since voters first approved the tax in 2012, when the agency was staring down the barrel of financial ruin. CATS officials say the transit system — and the tens of thousands of riders who depend on it — could wind up in similarly dire straits if the tax extension fails to muster enough votes this fall.

Proponents of the measure say it would also help CATS improve its transit system and support nearly 40,000 jobs for low-income residents over the next decade.

“We’ve been so busy over the last few years, just heads down, getting it done,” CATS CEO Bill Deville said. “Because the renewal is coming up, it’s given us an opportunity to present what we’ve done, what we’ve accomplished and get that word out and educate the public.”

This week’s campaign launch, which includes an online portal and community outreach, precedes a vote by the CATS Board of Commissioners next Tuesday to approve millage rates and language of the proposition before sending it to the ballot. A "mill" is $1 of tax for every $1,000 in taxable property value.

Baton Rouge residents are currently taxed for the bus system at a millage rate of 10.06, and Baker residents are taxed at a rate of 9.6-mill. Those rates began in September after a parishwide re-assessment resulted in increased property tax values for many residents, prompting CATS to roll back rates for each city from the original 10.6-mill OK’d by voters in 2012.

CATS officials said the board will decide Tuesday whether to ask voters in each city to return the tax to its original rate or to approve it at the rolled-back rate.

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In the months leading up to the October election, CATS officials said they plan to hold community meetings and drum up support for the tax from various local leaders.

“Renewing CATS’ primary funding source is an investment our community desperately needs,” Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said in a statement, “both in normal times and, in particular, as our economy continues to recover from the pandemic.”

The campaign kick-start comes as CATS battles a federal lawsuit from its labor union, which accuses Deville of “union busting” by punishing employees who spoke out about “corrupt business practices” and unsafe working conditions. The lawsuit was filed after the transit agency fired several union officers last year for allegedly leaking a co-worker's sex tape.

Deville said union leaders and CATS employees have already voiced a willingness to help the system promote the tax renewal to the community.

Union President Yvette Rhines did not return a call seeking comment by press time.

When voters initially approved the tax nine years ago, CATS faced bankruptcy. If the renewal fails to pass this year, the system says it “will eventually be unable to provide transit services to the Baton Rouge community.”

The tax generated about $17.8 million in revenue for the bus system in 2019, according to the system's 2020 annual audit.

“Stopping service stops people from going to jobs,” CATS Director of Planning Cheri Soileau said. “They can’t go to Gerry Lane and buy a new car, or even a used car. They depend on us to get them to their jobs to feed their families.”