November 3, 2009 in City, Idaho

Voters wary of ballot measures

By and The Spokesman-Review
 
Colin Mulvany photo

Former Spokane County Commissioner Kate McCaslin, left, and Tom Power, finance chairman for the Proposition 4 group JOBS, watch early results come in Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009, at Press on the South Hill.
(Full-size photo)

Voters seemed wary Tuesday of ballot measures that would cost them money or mandate too much more change.

Kootenai County voters shot down a pair of ballot measures would have increased the sales tax for 10 years to pay for a jail expansion and provide property tax relief.

In Washington, voters turned thumbs down to Initiative 1033, new spending limits on state, county and city governments that elected officials had said were so radical they’d wind up hamstringing services. Voters were narrowly passing Referendum 71, a measure to ratify expanded rights to domestic partnerships, but the final decision might not be known for days.

Spokane city voters were narrowly rejecting a new $33 million bond issue for city fire equipment and stations, but fire officials were trying to remain “cautiously optimistic” that they would gain enough votes in counts in the coming weeks.

There’s no such wait for a proposed change to Spokane’s City Charter: Voters soundly rejected a package of amendments that would have set new rules for wages, workplaces, neighborhood development and environmental protection.

Here’s a rundown of some of the top ballot measures:

Kootenai County Jail Measures

Voters said no to proposals to raise the sales tax by a half-cent for 10 years to pay for a jail expansion and provide property tax relief. Though voters supported the measures, the approval did not rise to the level needed — two-thirds of the vote.

The first measure sought approval for $57 million worth of bonds for jail improvement to be repaid over 10 years, but only allowed the bonds to be sold if voters also approved an increase to the sales tax. At press time, the no votes were slightly edging out the yes votes.

The second asked whether the county should raise its sales tax by a half-cent for 10 years — to 6.5 percent — to fund property tax relief and the jail expansion. That measure, voters were approving with 54 percent of the vote, which was still well short of the supermajority needed for passage.

The two measures represented the county’s third attempt in four years to address jail overcrowding, and its last opportunity to expand the jail using the local-option sales tax, which expires at the end of the year.

County Finance Director David McDowell has said preliminary projections show that about $136 million would have been raised over 10 years, enough to provide $68 million for construction, which includes interest payments, and $68 million for property tax relief.

The county has been struggling with space problems for years as its 325-person jail is regularly pushed to capacity. Measures to expand the jail failed in 2005 and last year, when voters shot down a $147 million measure that would have expanded the jail and updated public safety facilities.

The proposal this time would have added 457 beds to the jail and expanded services, including the kitchen, laundry and infirmary, to meet county needs for at least 10 years. The price tag dropped to $57 million largely due to declining construction costs and a plan to use precast cells shipped to the site, instead of concrete poured in place.

County Commissioner Todd Tondee has said that if the measures failed, the county will end up renting space at other jails at an estimated cost of about $52 million over a 10-year period.

Initiative 1033

This was the latest in a long line of attempts by Tim Eyman to put restrictions on government. It tried to attack the ability of the state, counties and cities to spend money, allowing their expenses to go up each year only by a formula that accounts for inflation and population growth. Any money collected above that level would be set aside, and returned the following year as rebates to property taxes.

It drew support from small business coalitions, many Republicans and the populist conservative Tea Party movement. It was blasted by government officials of both political parties in state and local jurisdictions as a dangerous formula in the midst of a recession.

Eyman seemed to acknowledge defeat before the first ballot results were in, e-mailing a copy of his statement to supporters that the campaign was “proud of all our heroic supporters” whatever happened, and listing previous victories at the ballot box. The measure failed decisively in Spokane, Whitman, Garfield and Asotin counties as well as those surrounding the Puget Sound.

Referendum 71

Social conservatives sought to block expanded legal protections for domestic partnerships that the Legislature approved last spring for same-sex couples and seniors who want to live together without getting married. Those rights were labeled “everything but marriage” in the legislation, but opponents said it essentially allows marriage for same-sex couples.

Approving the referendum meant allowing the law to go into effect, while rejecting the referendum rejected the changes.

Supporters of R-71 raised more than $2 million, which fueled a television ad blitz in the month before the election. Opponents of the measure, who had put it on the ballot, raised about $275,000, and concentrated on yard signs and mailings.

The measure was narrowly passing at press time, but sharply dividing the state. Most counties around the Puget Sound were approving the measure, while the remainder of the state’s counties were heavily rejecting it.

Spokane Proposition 4

Named the Community Bill of Rights by supporters, this proposal offered voters the chance to add nine amendments to the Spokane City Charter. It was drafted in a series of meetings sponsored by Envision Spokane with neighborhood groups, labor unions and environmental organizations, and fine tuned through town hall style meetings.

But the breadth of the amendments, which either had to be approved or rejected as a group, prompted criticism from city officials and business organizations. They said it could saddle the city with costs of guaranteeing health care or make businesses uncompetitive. Most of all, they said, it would spawn lawsuits because many of the concepts were untested.

It failed, nearly 3-to-1 in votes counted Tuesday.

“We think the voters of Spokane realized this is a bad idea,” Brian Murray, a campaign manager for one of the opposition groups, said Tuesday night. Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and business leaders have said they’d be willing to sit down with Envision Spokane to discuss other ways to accomplish some of their goals, he added.

But Brad Read of Envision Spokane said the outcome wasn’t surprising considering opponents heavily outspent them and used dire predictions like “Spokane would cease to exist” if the measure passed. Whether the group would accept an offer to discuss other ways to make changes is unclear, Read added, and there is some skepticism that opponents are willing to negotiate seriously.

Spokane Proposition 1

City voters were also asked to approve a $33 million bond issue for new fire engines, equipment and stations. The 10-year bond issue would cost a homeowner $27 for every $100,000 of assessed value of property; it’s designed to replace a bond issue passed in 1999, but raises the cost by about $10 per $100,000. It needed a 60 percent supermajority, and in Tuesday’s tally had collected only 58.6 percent.

Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer said supporters hoped to close the gap in upcoming ballot counts. If that doesn’t work, the Fire Department will try again, but not before meeting with voters and asking them if the department should take a different direction.

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