Murphy's Lawyer: SNAFU in levy lid lift ballot title
Ballot language could’ve played role in outcome
By Kevan Moore
What’s in a name, anyway?
Well, when it comes to the language contained in an election ballot, it can mean the difference between winning and losing.
The recent attempt by Fire District 2 to collect taxes for the next six years earned 1,127 “yes” votes (49.3 percent)....
The question now, though, has become this: What exactly were people voting for? And, beyond that, could it have affected the way that a person or persons voted?
Fire District 2 officials contend that they submitted ballot language to the county representing a levy lid lift and that the county returned and ran ballot language that represented an excess tax levy.
Mason County’s Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Monty Cobb says that the district’s proposed ballot language was changed for several reasons.
“I pretty much rewrote the whole thing because it was vague, too long and it was biased,” Cobb said. “If the language I wrote in any way confused anybody, that’s never my intent. My intent when I rewrite is to comply with state requirements.”
Cobb, though, also says that both versions, that proposed by the district and his rewrite, represent a levy lid lift.
“Whether the language affected anybody’s vote, there’s no way of telling unless you go poll everybody that voted,” Cobb said.
The article is accompanied by an inset text box containing the language suggested by the fire district and the ballot title written by the county prosecutor’s office.
The fire district did choose a biased word as a substitute for “increase”: “...a proposition to restore its regular property tax levy to an amount not to exceed $1.32 per $1,000....” It would be an increase in the levy dollar amount, not a restoration of some previously lost or forfeited levy amount. But “restore” sounds so much better than “tax increase,” doesn’t it?
Here is how the county prosecutor’s office changed it: “This proposition authorizes the District to levy excess taxes on all taxable property within the District at a rate not exceeding $1.32 per $1,000....”
Mr. Monty Cobb must be new in this area, since the words “to levy excess taxes” have a particular meaning that many, if not most, people know. An “excess levy” is a property tax that is in excess of the taxing district’s share of the maximum constitutional limit on regular levies.
A “lid lift,” on the other hand, does not exceed the taxing district’s maximum share of that constitutional limit. It merely increases the regular levy dollar amount when the current tax rate can be raised without exceeding the district's maximum statutory tax rate.
An “excess levy” would be in addition to the regular levy. In this case, then, the ballot title would suggest to anyone who knows the meaning of “excess levy” that the fire district proposed to collect $1.32 per $1,000 in addition to its regular levy.
Strangely, the county auditor is quoted in the article as saying that everyone in her office thought it was an “excess levy.” Since a fire district can only seek an excess levy for a period of four years for maintenance and operations funding, the auditor and her employees ought to have wondered why this proposition proposed a period of six years. And, since excess levies must state the total dollar amount to be collected in each year, they ought to have wondered why this ballot measure didn't do so.
Since the law was just changed this year to allow taxing districts like fire districts to propose lid lifts that increase the regular levy's amount by more than the ordinary limit factor in each of six consecutive years, one would think that the fire district's people surely mentioned to someone somewhere that they were taking advantage of this new "lid lift" law.
What a mess. If just one of the people who touched this ballot measure while it was in the making had done his or her job competently, there would be no reason to wonder if the voters’ rejection occurred because of the erroneous ballot title.
The article notes that the fire district commissioners adopted their resolution and forwarded it to the auditor who then sent it to the county prosecutor. The prosecutor wrote the ballot title, and sent it to the auditor, who then gave the fire district an opportunity to review it. The fire district accepted the prosecutor's ballot title without question.
It then went onto the ballot, and the rest is a mystery. How many voters knew what an "excess levy" is, and therefore rejected the idea of such a large levy in addition to the regular levy?
It wouldn't have taken many to affect the outcome, since the ballot measure was rejected by such a slim margin. If 17 voters had voted "yes" instead of "no," the measure would have been approved.