Despite a request from the mayor's office to reconsider, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners voted Thursday to shift even more tax dollars from the Railroad Transportation Safety District to its coffers to cover the budget gap.
The board originally planned to move 1 cent of the RTSD levy just to cover the gap, but it decided to shift 1.6 cents instead to help cushion next year's budget, which likely will prove to be another difficult one.
Mayor Chris Beutler's aide Rick Hoppe asked commissioners to hold off on making any decision on the levy change until after Monday's scheduled Commons Meeting with the County Board, the City Council and Beutler.
They are set to discuss the short-term mission and the long-term future of the RTSD.
"We understand the budget challenge you are facing, and we know you have to make some gut-wrenching choices," Hoppe said. "We're empathetic to that, but I'm respectfully requesting you put this (vote) off … until we can have a broader discussion about the issue."
Hoppe said the RTSD has gone a long way to helping economic growth, and doesn't want to see its funds cut.
He pointed to projects such as the Harris Overpass that revitalized West O Street and the Havelock Overpass that has helped the Havelock business district.
At issue is a proposed project to fix two rail crossings at 33rd and 35th and Adams streets. Commissioners say the project is not a good use of RTSD funds and goes way beyond fixing the crossings by adding roundabouts that fix city intersections.
Commissioner Larry Hudkins, who cast the deciding "yes" in the 3-2 vote to shift the 1.6 cents, told Hoppe the move isn't final until the budget is adopted in September, and that discussion still can happen.
Commissioners Jane Raybould and Deb Schorr voted against the measure because they said it didn't feel right to take more than needed to cover the gap.
The county needs $1.3 million to bridge the gap, but the extra funds could go toward health insurance increases, self-insurance reserves, salaries for unrepresented workers and litigation, commissioners said.
Commissioner Brent Smoyer advocated using some for tax relief.
The RTSD is a joint county-city agency that was created in 1971 to help reduce the high number of fatalities at rail crossings. After those numbers were greatly reduced, the group began identifying rail crossings in need of work, creating quiet zones where trains can't use their horns, conducting studies for future safety projects and funding existing projects.
The current RTSD 2.6-cent property tax levy brings in almost $5 million a year. The owner of a $150,000 home contributes about $40 a year in taxes.
It has $17 million in its coffers, enough to pay for current projects.