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Regional tax for rail line may include York

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If York County joins a move to add up to 1 cent to the state’s sales tax, county residents would pay roughly $17 million to the total revenue collected in the region.
The sales-tax proposal is designed to raise money for a commuter railroad line, as well as museums, arts organizations and other causes in the area.
If the new tax also covered York, it would raise more than $83 million a year for the region, said Neal West, chairman of a task force that developed the tax proposal.
If the tax is a full 1 percent, about one-third of the new revenue, or $27.3 million, would come from Lancaster County, West said, based on rough estimates. Dauphin would collect $21.3 million, York would collect $17.3 million and Cumberland $16.5 million.
If county commissioners approve it, the counties would form a so-called Regional Asset District, an idea first tried in Allegheny County.
The tax proposal, unveiled in Harrisburg in December, initially embraced only Cumberland, Dauphin and Lancaster counties. Since then, more and more people in York County have shown interest.
“We’re the kind of organization that thinks this is apple pie and motherhood,” said Charles Bacas, a board member of Better York Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to curbing suburban sprawl. “The real question is the degree to which we all go back to our busy lives and keep this issue alive.”
To learn more, Bacas and several others from York County attended a meeting April 5 in Harrisburg. York County Commissioners met with the tax’s advocates April 9.
York Mayor John Brenner supports the idea. His economic-development director, Eugene DePasquale, attended a similar meeting shortly after Brenner took office in January.
The proposal remains a skeleton, with only a few details filled in.
About a quarter of the revenue would support rail, and another quarter could be used to offset local nuisance taxes. The rest would be split among cultural organizations, recreational activities and economic development.
A board of directors would help to decide how the money is allocated within the Regional Asset District, said West, an attorney with Harristown Development Corp. in Harrisburg. But there is no clear idea who would pick board members and who would be eligible.
The state Legislature would have to pass a law allowing counties to move forward. Then, county commissioners could vote on the matter.
The best time to advance legislation would be this fall, once the state budget is completed, West said. County commissioners would then have next year, an election year, to act. The tax could take effect as early as 2004.
“Personally, I think it’s a realistic time frame,” West said.
Many politicians will find the tax hard to support unless the public is behind it, West said.
Critics argue that an additional 1 percent sales tax would hurt local businesses as customers head to counties where the tax isn’t charged. That would be especially true, critics say, for expensive goods, such as cars, boats, recreational vehicles and jewelry.
Advocates said that buyers of cars and other vehicles, which must be registered, pay sales taxes in their home county, so crossing county lines to avoid the extra 1 percent tax would be futile. The new tax revenue, advocates added, would support projects that benefit the region and attract educated workers.
Some have yet to take a stand either way.
Chris Reilly, York County Board of Commissioners president and a Republican, said he was undecided, though his conservative political views made him skeptical. “We hear about proposals like this all the time,” Reilly said, before the commissioners’ meeting with tax supporters. “Frankly, it’s going to be difficult to impose a tax increase without very good reason.”
For many voters, commuter rail may not be a good reason, he said.
“People like their cars. They like the mobility. They like the freedom,” Reilly said. “I can’t really point to any examples in our region where public transportation has been a smashing success.”
Local bus systems have had to cut routes for lack of riders, he said.
“Public transportation is a tough sell and a novel concept for a lot of people.”

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