Topeka, Kan., Votes Down Tax Hike to Support Transit Service

Two attempts were made to increase the property tax that finances the city's bus service, and both were rejected. The first one proposed a hike of $11.50 a year for homeowners and the second for $5.75 a year.

by Tim Hrenchir, The Topeka Capital-Journal / February 14, 2019

(TNS) — A divided Topeka governing body rejected two attempts late Tuesday to increase the property tax that finances the city's bus service, first by 1 mill, then by 1/2 mill.

"This saddens my heart," said Councilwoman Sylvia Ortiz, who was on the losing side both times. She stressed that the TMTA's levy hasn't been increased since 2010.

Supporters only got four "yes" votes — with six needed for approval — as the governing body rejected the proposed 1-mill hike in the levy assessed by the Topeka Metropolitan Transit Authority. That would have amounted to an annual rise in property taxes of $11.50 for the owner of a $100,000 home.

Supporters then got five "yes" votes as the governing body rejected the proposed 1/2-mill hike, which would have amounted to an annual rise in property taxes of $5.75 for the owner of a $100,000 home.

Tuesday's votes came as the governing body, consisting of the mayor and nine city council members, considered — and ultimately approved — a charter ordinance excluding the revenues and expenses of the TMTA when determining the city's state-imposed aggregate limit for property taxes. The TMTA oversees the city's transit service, Topeka Metro.

The proposal approved Tuesday contained wording calling for the TMTA's property tax levy to remain at 4.2 mills.

But Councilman Brendan Jensen made a motion to amend it by increasing that levy effective in 2020 by 1 mill, to 5.2.

The motion got "yes" votes from council members Jensen, Ortiz, Karen Hiller and Mike Padilla.

Council members Sandra Clear, Tony Emerson, Aaron Mays, Jeff Coen and Mike Lesser voted "no."

Mayor Michelle De La Isla was absent, as she was away in Arkansas attending a mayor's conference.

Before voting on the first amendment, Mays said he had sent out a survey to 800 of his constituents and 61 percent of respondents indicated they opposed increasing the bus service levy.

"My district is telling me to vote 'no' and my conscience says to vote 'yes,' " he said.

After the first vote, Mays made a motion to amend the proposal by instead increasing the TMTA levy effective in 2020 by a half-mill, to 4.7.

That motion failed, getting "yes" votes from Mays, Jensen, Ortiz, Hiller and Padilla.

Clear, Emerson, Coen and Lesser voted "no," while De La Isla was absent.

Governing body members then voted 8-1, with Ortiz dissenting, to approve the initial form of the measure, which excludes the TMTA's revenues and expenses when determining the city's property tax limit. The approved version keeps the TMTA levy at 4.2 mills.

Still, city attorney Lisa Robertson said the governing body could revisit the TMTA 2020 mill levy amount up until it finalizes the city's 2020 budget in August.

She said that because the motions rejected Tuesday were amendments — and not part of the final vote — they weren't covered by a city rule mandating that any proposed resolution or ordinance rejected by the governing body not be considered again for six months.

Dozens of Topeka Metro supporters were present at Tuesday's meeting, where 10 members of the public spoke before the governing body about the proposal.

Nine spoke in favor. The other speaker suggested putting the TMTA under the auspices of the city government.

Some of those expressing support for Topeka Metro on Tuesday suggested the lack of a mill levy increase would force it to reduce services. Ortiz voiced the same concern, saying, "We've got to keep everybody moving and everybody working."

Padilla, who joined Ortiz in supporting the increases, said transit service brings the larger community "the opportunity for hope, health, happiness and prosperity."

But Emerson, who voted "no," said his constituents tell him they are just "tapped out" and can't support any new taxes.

Other council members opposing the tax increase suggested the TMTA was spending more than it should in areas that include administrative salaries.

One provided The Capital-Journal figures indicating that 2019 Topeka Metro annual salaries include:

  • $113,382 for general manager Susan Duffy
  • $76,688 each for legal counsel John Cassidy, chief financial officer Charles Faldine and chief operations officer Denise Ensley
  • $70,553 for director of maintenance and facilities Alan Parrish
  • $69,500 for information technology director Jared Culbertson
  • $65,000 each for director of planning Edwin Rothrock and special projects engineer Andrew Fry
  • $61,861 for human resources director Terri Miller
  • $56,238 for marketing and communications director Keri Renner
  • $53,170 for bicycle operations director Karl Fundenberger
  • $48,880 for executive finance assistant Karla Richardson
  • $43,888 for administrative assistant Leisa Shepherd
  • $37,440 for accounting assistant Samuel Hicks
  • $32,240 for graphic designer Andrew Escandon

©2019 The Topeka Capital-Journal, Kan. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.