Money measures flock to November ballot

POLK COUNTY -- As Polk County voters get their mail-in ballots this fall, they might notice a trend.

More and more money measures.

That's not by accident. Local officials have planned around even-year Novembers since voters passed property tax limitations in 1997.

Measure 50 not only slashed property taxes, it limited the ability of public bodies to raise money.

The measure requires at least half of all registered voters turn out to approve any funding requests. Since the majority of those voters must also support the measure, hence the "double majority" rule.

This rule does not apply during even-year November elections. Because most Polk County voters don't vote during other elections, those Novembers are the only option for local measures.

Elections during other months have proven risky. Dallas School District voters passed a measure last September to buy land for a future school. But their vote was invalidated by the turnout -- around one-third of registered voters.

So when cities, counties and local districts plan for bonds and levies, they're now planning for busy ballots. They coincide with congressional and presidential or gubernatorial contests.

"It's like there's no end to them," said measures expert Mark Henkels, a political science professor at Western Oregon University. The volume of choices on one ballot means each measure gets less attention.

"A crowded ballot tends to hurt them all."

Even in the thick crowd, Henkels said, urgent community safety issues may stick out. If jail crowding causes prisoners to be released, for example.

But local campaigns can be muted by the roar of a state or national race.

This year, tight budgets have led cities and districts to turn to voters. Monmouth officials could ask voters to approve four measures covering annexation, a residency requirement for city council and the city's general fund support fee.

Petitioners there also plan to ask for a vote on the town's dry law.

Dallas city officials are asking voters to approve new fire equipment this November. The Polk Soil and Water Conservation District will seek a levy for personnel and office expenses.

Jock Dalton, the district board's chair, cited ballot crowding in 2004 as one reason to aim for this November's election.

For such a distant ticket -- 27 months away -- interest in the November 2004 ballot is strong.

Dallas could float a measure for public safety facilities. Polk County Fair officials have discussed becoming a taxing district or seeking a County levy. The Oregon State University Extension office could also turn to voters.

If voters turn down measures this November, they could see the same measures reappear in 2004. Absent an economic turnaround, many more public officials could offer open hands.

Ironically, directing ballot traffic to Novembers increases the cost, said Steve Novick of the Portland-based Center for Concerned Citizen Action. Taxing bodies need to spend more to compete.

Special elections in March, May or September, by contrast, might only present one issue to decide.

For those who can't wait for November, the next presidential election season might give another window for money measures. A contested May primary might give local authorities the 50 percent turnout they need.

Dallas City Manager Roger Jordan said he might recommend putting a public safety measure on the May 2004 ballot instead of waiting until that fall.

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