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Passengers board a bus during activity at the main CATS bus terminal located at 2250 Florida Blvd Wednesday Oct. 27, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La.

Voters in Baton Rouge and Baker approved a 10-year property tax renewal that funds a majority of the cities’ bus system, ending months of anxiety from local leaders who warned of disastrous consequences if the measure failed.

Unofficial results Saturday night showed a comfortable margin of victory for the renewal of the tax.

“Today signifies a day of progress for our community," CATS CEO Bill Deville said in a statement. "With the passage and renewal of CATS’ 10-year millage comes opportunity to enhance our transit infrastructure and expand service offerings to better serve the transportation needs of our community."

With all Baton Rouge precincts reporting, "yes" led the rejection of the tax by more than 19 percentage points of the 21,700 votes cast, according to unofficial results.

Unofficial turnout was 15.7% of registered voters.

Baker voters offered an even more resounding approval of the tax. With all precincts reporting, 68% of the 1,200 voters in Baker approved proposition.

Unofficial turnout was 14.4% of registered voters.

The proposition asked voters to approve a 10-year tax rate of 10.6 mills. A "mill" is $1 of tax for every $1,000 in taxable property value, meaning the owner of a house with an assessed value of $100,000 would pay $106 annually.

In his statement, Deville outlined plans for "major" investments in the system over the next 10 years, including the creation of a bus rapid transit route and the modernization of the system's bus fleet. 

The vote now ensures dedicated funding to the public transportation system for the next decade, 10 years after voters in the two municipalities approved the tax.

The 2012 election to fund CATS by taxing property owners in Baker and Baton Rouge took the system from the verge of bankruptcy to an annual budget of more than $30 million. Roughly $18 million of that yearly sum comes from the tax.

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Passenger fares typically account for about $2 million in annual revenue, and the agency regularly takes in millions of dollars in federal subsidies to cover capital projects and bus maintenance.

Saturday's result in both cities was a larger margin of victory for the tax than in 2012. 

Leaders from both cities vocally supported the tax’s renewal, warning that a rejection of the renewal could deal a fatal blow to the system that is the only form of transportation for a vast majority of its ridership.

“I never tell people how I vote,” East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said earlier this week during an event promoting the renewal. “On this, I voted yes.”

Organizations including Together Baton Rouge and the Baton Rouge Area Chamber also endorsed the tax extension.

Unlike when the tax first passed in 2012, there was no organized opposition to speak of. This time around, the bus system was plagued by bad publicity in the months leading up to the election.

It took nearly a month longer than expected for the board to send the proposition to voters after CATS failed to submit required paperwork notifying the state of the election in the spring. Around that time, supply chain disruptions and a labor shortage caused trip cancellations to skyrocket, recently reaching the same level of problems as the system had at the start of the pandemic in March and April 2020.

A heat wave in late July combined with a parts shortage led to more than a third of the system’s fleet breaking down, forcing CATS to use vans to transport riders.

Behind the scenes, the system’s labor union leadership has been in legal conflict with management over a federal lawsuit that accuses CEO Bill Deville of union busting. The lawsuit came after the transit agency spent $50,000 investigating several union officers for allegedly disseminating a co-worker's sex tape.

And in October, Deville was forced to issue a statement after the agency’s former policy coordinator emailed a cache of secret recordings he took of his boss, Chief Administrative Officer Pearlina Thomas, to members of the parish Metro Council and Broome, alleging “illegal and unethical” business practices at CATS. Deville noted that annual audits required by state law have never surfaced any evidence of the allegations.

In its statement of support, BRAC said it asked CATS’ management and board to improve transparency and accountability about its performance and how it spends public dollars.