By Ann McCreary

The new Okanogan County Transit Authority (OCTA) has secured a bank loan to help with startup costs, after being turned down for a loan by Okanogan County commissioners.

Creation of a new countywide bus system received strong support from voters in last November’s general election, winning approval by a margin of 56 to 44 percent. In approving the transit authority, voters authorized a new sales tax of up to 0.4 percent to fund the new public transportation system.

Because revenue from the sales tax collection won’t be available until early summer, OCTA’s interim manager, Michael Blake, recently asked county commissioners to authorize an interfund loan from the county to help with initial costs.

Blake, former mayor of Okanogan, requested a loan of $100,000 from the county to help OCTA pay for office space, phone and internet service, and other costs needed to launch the new transit system. Blake said he didn’t want to delay action for six months until tax revenues are distributed.

County Treasurer Leah McCormack said an interfund loan would be repaid at about 4 percent interest, according to minutes from the Dec. 31 meeting when Blake made the request for a loan. The interest would have generated about $4,000 for the county.

Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy said that even though voters approved the tax, she didn’t think they understood how it would affect them, according to minutes from the meeting.

“We basically told him we’re not a bank,” Commissioner Jim DeTro said this week. Like Kennedy, he said he thought voters may not have understood the scope of the transit proposal, and warned of a possible “backlash” from voters after taxes are levied.

“I just am concerned that the citizens are going to, after the fact, look back and say, ‘Gee whiz, is this really what we wanted?’” DeTro said.

“It was clear from all the commissioners that they didn’t really support transit and the tax, and politically they did not want to be in a position to loan money to the transit authority,” Blake said in a recent interview.

“I’m against raising a lot of taxes, but I’m all for giving people what they vote for,” Blake said.

The transit authority last month secured a revolving loan from North Cascades National Bank. Blake said he had not been sure that the new organization would qualify for a loan because it lacks a track record.

Blake said the loan provides OCTA access to up to $150,000. The transit authority will move money into its account as needed before tax revenues are dispersed in June. The bank loan has a fee of $1,000 and interest of 6 percent, Blake said.

Because OCTA is able to pay interest on a portion of the loan at a time, rather than the full amount, the bank financing may end up costing the transit authority less than the lower-interest loan requested from the county, Blake said.

DeTro, who represents Okanogan County on the OCTA board, also balked at approving the sales tax rate of 0.4 percent to fund district operations at a transit authority board meeting on Jan. 30.

DeTro voted against a resolution stating that the transit authority would levy the 0.4 percent sales tax rate authorized by voters in November, saying he was concerned that the OCTA board was moving too quickly. The resolution calling for the 0.4 percent tax rate was approved by a majority of the board. Taxes to fund the transit district will begin being collected in April.

DeTro said this week he questioned “why there is such urgency to start spending money.”

The tax rate of 4/10 of 1 percent was chosen by transit planners because it would raise enough money to extend bus service to the Methow Valley as well as other parts of Okanogan County.

The tax rate would equal 4 cents on every $10 taxable purchase, and produce about $2 million a year.

The revenue generated through the sales tax will fund the operations, equipment, maintenance and facilities of a bus system with a hub in the Omak/Okanogan area and connections to and from other primary cities and towns in the county, including Winthrop, Twisp and Pateros.

As the fledgling transit authority moves forward, Blake said the focus is on getting contracts for services in place, determining bus routes, and establishing bus stops and park and rides. OCTA is beginning the process of searching for a permanent general manager.

OCTA’s board of directors includes DeTro, representing Okanogan County; Ken Thompson, Okanogan council member; Dwight Filer, Twisp council member; Ed Naillon, Oroville council member; Liberty Harrison, Pateros council member; Patrick Plumb, Tonasket mayor; Cindy Gagne, Omak mayor; Arthur Smith, Brewster council member; and Sue Langdalen, Winthrop mayor.

Blake said OCTA is also searching for citizens to join an advisory committee to the transit authority. He asked interested citizens to contact OCTA by email at okanogantransit@gmail.com.