How To Plug The Hole In Cincinnati's Metro Budget?

May 14, 2018

The Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) estimates it will have a $6.4 million budget deficit next year to operate Metro buses.  

That number could go higher if the forecast for Cincinnati's earning tax revenues is revised downwards.  

SORTA is considering several options to close the gap, including a fare increase, service reductions, and dipping into reserve accounts.

City council would have to approve a fare increase, and there's a strong possibility that will be rejected.

"A fare increase is the last thing that we want to do to because of all the reasons, we know it impacts ridership and access," SORTA General Manager Dwight Ferrell said. "We certainly understand that's a barrier to it. It's not something that we would just come in and say, 'Okay, let's just increase fares and that will make it all right.'  Absolutely not."

Everyone agrees the current SORTA funding mechanism is not working.  

Right now, most of the money comes from the city's earnings tax. People who work in Cincinnati pay a 2.1 percent earnings tax, and 0.3 percent is directed toward transit.

Council Member Chris Seelbach said some big decisions need to be made.

"Cincinnati taxpayers, so people who work in the city of Cincinnati, pay for a bus system that all people in this county utilize," Seelbach said. "So if you work and live in Sharonville, Blue Ash or Kenwood, you're benefiting from a system that you don't pay for. And so what makes sense is that we have a county-wide sales tax, like every other bus system in Ohio, that pays for a county-wide system."

The SORTA Board has discussed placing a county-wide sales tax issue on the ballot, but there's been no official action to do that.

Meanwhile, the Better Bus Coalition has been floating a plan to ask Cincinnati voters to increase the city's transit earnings tax to help pay for bus service.  A published report indicated the coalition could collect petition signatures for a Charter amendment for a 0.2 percent increase, bringing the amount to 0.5 percent.