There are times when municipalities need to take issues directly to the voters, but do certain issues receive more support than others? The Municipal wanted to take a look at ballot measures and referendums to see if there are trends.
On a statewide level, there were fewer ballot measures in November 2020 than in recent years. In fact, according to Ballotpedia.org, the 129 statewide measures were the lowest number of statewide measures “since at least 1980.” The recent high point was in 1998 with 272 measures. In 2018 there were 167 ballot measures. The 2020 number was 26% lower than the average of 172 found in even numbered years.
Ballotpedia broke down those 129 statewide measures by type and determined 69 were legislatively referred amendments, 39 were initiatives, four were veto referendums, six were legislatively referred state statutes and one was an automatic ballot referral. There were zero commission referred ballot measures, four were advisory questions and six were bond issues.
Some trends in statewide measures included police reform bills, with Ballotpedia identifying 20 local police-related ballot measures on the Nov. 3 ballot following the death of George Floyd. Those measures concerned police practices; police oversight boards and auditors; the authority of existing oversight boards and auditors; police staffing and funding levels; and recordings from police body and dashboard cameras.
Legalizing marijuana was on the ballot in several states, including Arizona, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota, and they all passed, whether for recreational or medicinal use. Oregon passed a measure decriminalizing the possession of certain drugs and establishing recovery funds.
There were also several suffrage items on the ballots in California, Colorado and Florida.
On a local level, two cities in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, had ballot measures — one successfully passed and the other didn’t.
In Strongsville, Ohio, officials were seeking a $2.5 million increase in taxes for a fifth fire station and 20 full-time firefighter/paramedics. The measure was defeated with about 13,000 “no” votes and 11,000 “yes” votes.
In a Nov. 10 article on Cleveland.com, “Future of Strongsville Fire Department uncertain after failure of tax increase,” writer Bob Sandrick noted Strongsville Fire Chief Jack Draves had said there’s adequate firefighters on duty for the safety of the community, but the department has reportedly been running on a skeleton crew for a while. The article further shared Draves had given a presentation to the city council in July, during which he stated call volume had increased by 23% over the past five years. Contributing to this increase is an aging population that requires more emergency medical services.
Mayor Tom Perciak said voter turnout was the highest he’s ever seen. On an average year, the city may have 12,000-15,000 voters, and this year, because of the presidential election, it had more than 25,000 votes cast.
“We had a huge turnout here. Had this been a normal election cycle, I think we’d have a better opportunity to pass the levy,” Perciak said. “Most levies in the past placed on the ballot for anything fire or EMS related have passed — this is the first time in my memory, in my 17 years as mayor, that it didn’t pass.”
As for the strategy to promote the cause, Perciak said the city at first looked to the community, which had been “very receptive.” Strongsville raised $40,000 to fund the campaign and received those donations from civic organizations, business leaders and residents donating anything from $50 to $5,000.
Those donations were used for yard and intersection signs, direct mail pieces and door hangers — “a full-fledged campaign” was enacted, according to Perciak.
If it would have passed, a homeowner with an assessed valuation of $100,000 would have had an increase of $87.50 a year on their taxes; a $200,000 assessed valuation would have been $175 a year; and a $300,000 assessed valuation home would have been $262.50.
Perciak said the average home in Strongsville is valued at about $200,000-$300,000.
As for why the ballot didn’t pass, Perciak cited two reasons with the high voter turnout as one.
“In any type of levy, the lesser the turnout, the more probable it is that it’s going to pass,” he said, adding he had heard from constituents that they felt the timing wasn’t right. “We felt differently — the majority of the calls are EMS and the fire service handles all the EMS.”
He said there were about 4,000 emergency medical services calls versus about 11 actual big fires. “So we believed with COVID, it’d have a better chance of passing.”
Another reason city officials wanted to present it now, with the fire chief and fire union in agreement, was their concern about school district funding being cut.
“We thought before the school systems ask for additional funding, we better ask for health and safety,” he said. “But, we were wrong.”
Perciak said the city will bring the issue to the voters again in May but with a different strategy, noting the city has a senior center/recreation center that currently has a bond service debt that will be complete in December 2021.
“We’ll be able to use that bonding methodology to finance and secure the construction of a new fire station and equipment and employees and reduce the millage to cover the actual cost of employing the firefighters over the years,” Perciak said.
The cost to employ a firefighter/paramedic with five to 10 years of seniority is about $140,000 a year with all benefits. The police-fire pension is 24.5% of the total salary. “And in Ohio there is no option — you have to pay.”
The cost of the health care benefits is about $21,000 a year.
Bringing the ballot measure back up will reduce the burden on taxpayers to 2% versus 2 1/2%. “We’d be able to do that because we paid off the other debt,” he said.
As for other measures that may have passed during his career, Perciak said the most successful in his 17 years have been fire issues. Police levies have been the least successful. Perciak said his predecessor tried two times to pass a levy to build a new police station and failed. Perciak has also tried twice and failed.
He’s not concerned about voter confidence if successful next time around, because “a picture paints a thousand words.”
He said when the city builds a fifth fire station and reduces response time from 11 minutes down to eight minutes, residents will be believers. He mentioned Strongsville is at the crossroads of two major interstates as well as the turnpike so it has its fair share of car accidents. He believes residents will see the benefits of that fire station downtown.
Economic Development Director Brent Painter said a lot of the city’s growth is commercial, and visitors come in to the city to shop or to work. There are also several senior assisted living facilities, too.
Perciak said 19,000 people are coming into town and leaving every day for retail businesses and small manufacturing companies — especially those dealing with technology. The city receives much of its revenue from income tax.
“Our whole payroll is paid by income tax,” he said, something voters decided before he became mayor.
Perciak feels Strongsville could get by for another year, but “inevitably, it’s not going to work because of our continued growth.”
He’s not concerned with the city’s availability to get debt service.
“For us to go out and get bonded to build a fire station will be a slam dunk with our credit rating,” he said.
Seven Hills, Ohio
Seven Hills — also in Cuyahoga County — was successful in getting its voters’ approval for a $1.4 million levy for parks and recreation.
Mayor Anthony Biasiotta said in order to pass, the city needed the majority of voters to approve, and it received 56%.
“Which is pretty good to get a favorable tax increase in a presidential election,” he said.
There were also library and school ballot measures that didn’t pass.
“Remarkably our voters voted against those (measures) but supported this one — I think it’s indicative of their trust in local government and their desire to have a strong park and recreation system. They understand the value that they get in return for their investment,” Biasiotta said.
The city had two goals with the levy. Biasiotta said the city has an old recreation center “that’s going to need investment to keep it safe,” including a new roof, new pool, air conditioner and track.
He said, “This will provide a source of funds to ensure that our $20 million investment in the center will be protected.”
The second goal is to make improvements to the city’s six parks, which all need TLC.
“In most cities, parks come last, unfortunately,” he said. “In almost all cities’ (budgets), the blueprint is first safety — police, fire; second services — roads, sewer and sanitation; and what’s left in the budget is what falls to parks.”
Seven Hills was able to maintain the parks with that method but has not been able to modernize them.
Biasiotta said the city’s strategy to garner voter support was to educate them. For the recreation center, officials brought in an engineering company to create a preliminary budget and form a good plan, which recommended the city set aside $240,000 a year for capital improvements. The mayor said Seven Hills got the word out to residents by putting that report online and on social media.
For the parks, the staff went to each park earlier in the year and identified needs and wants and then obtained estimates for those costs. They put all of that information in a PowerPoint presentation and then held community meetings where they could show residents “this is what it’s going to take to make the parks more attractive and have better amenities.”
“We also used social media to show this is all possible and more with the passage of Issue 41,” he said.
He attributes the success of the passage with the time put in to educate and influence the residents prior to and up to the vote, saying it was “instrumental.”
“Residents knew what it was being used for and the benefits they’d derive from the passage,” he said.
Voters also understood it would be a reasonable tax increase. On a $100,000 assessed valuation “the increase would be $4.08 a month for them to continue to have a very nice rec center.” And more importantly, it would bring nice parks that 100% of the people can use and enjoy seven days a week.
“I think that was very appealing to many people,” he said.
The recreation center is membership based, according to Biasiotta, and about 30% of the residents are members while everyone can use the parks.
“This year, particularly with COVID, we’ve seen a massive return to the parks and nature in general, which brought to light the need to have a first-class park system,” he said.
The city’s six parks are Calvin Park, Cricket Lane, Valleywood Park, John Glenn Park, North Park and Summitville Commons. According to the city’s website, improvements planned include updating playgrounds at all the parks and repaving parking lots. Other items include new bleachers and a concession stand at Valleywood Park; completing the walking path and creating a pavilion at John Glenn Park; adding a splash pad and concession stand at North Park; and adding a bocce ball court, restrooms and new picnic tables at Summitville Commons.
Biasiotta had theories as to why the library and school levies didn’t pass. For the library he said it did pass in most of Cuyahoga County but not in the city of Seven Hills and that’s because “people didn’t see a direct benefit.” There is no library in the city, and he said property taxes are fairly high in Seven Hills with only 15% going to the city and 85% to schools, library and other taxing entities.
“We have a very involved electorate here. They understand the difference between direct benefit versus not a direct benefit,”
As for the school levy, his belief is residents may feel they already contribute enough to the schools.
“We pay 20% of the school operating cost and only have 10% of the students in the system,” he explained, adding the median home prices in Seven Hills are higher than in the other cities in the school system.
As for past ballot measures, the mayor said in his three years in a leadership role in the city — two years as council president and one year as mayor — “All measures have passed with a 69% or higher majority.”
Those ballot measures covered a variety of issues — zoning, economic development and charter amendments. “All passed with a very, very strong majority.”
“I think transparency and communication is a big part of it,” he said, adding the mayor and council are now working closely together, which wasn’t always the case in the past.
“When you have everyone rowing in the same direction, you get better feedback from the community,” he said. “People can see the progress — they see it in the streets, sewers, parks. When they can see it and touch it, it makes believers out of them.”
Now that the levy has passed, Biasiotta said the city will continue doing the same things that gained the voters’ confidence. The architect will come up with a master plan, and the city will have several public meetings to continue being transparent and making sure the residents are on board with how Seven Hills is investing the monies.
Biasiotta reiterated high voter turnout makes getting a levy passed more difficult.
“My opinion is it’s harder in a presidential year because infrequent voters may only have strong feelings on presidential issues while more frequent voters are the ones who’ll generally check out the website and come to meetings.” When it comes to gaining support at the ballot, showing voters the cost and benefit and getting your message out early and frequently seems to be a winning campaign.