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Winning Local Revenue Measures: Tips for City Leaders

Mike Madrid is a political consultant who serves as public affairs director for the League and advises city governments on political campaigns. He can be reached at mmadrid@cacities.org.

It used to be that as a city grew and needed to expand the quality of services for its residents or respond to their calls for increased services, the city council would vote to place a revenue enhancement measure on the ballot in the following election. Through word of mouth, a smattering of yard signs and a campaign run by volunteers out of the city manager’s garage, a few cities managed to eke out a victory and go forward with plans promised to the voters. Unfortunately, this strategy has not succeeded for most cities. As technology and campaigns become more sophisticated, city officials would be well advised to consider a few points before committing their family room as the campaign headquarters for the upcoming sales tax measure campaign.

First Things First

Public information and ballot measure campaigns are an industry. Professional consul tants with many years of expertise are available to guide your city’s efforts. More than any other part of the effort to win, it is essential to seek out their advice before proceed ing. While some cities argue they can’t afford such consultants, the following points illustrate why you can’t afford not to hire an expert.

Research, Research, Research

An old saying in politics is that 90 percent of campaigns are won in the library. In other words, if you properly research your measure, you will know with a very high degree of certainty the probability of winning.

It has always struck me as incongruous that city leaders, both professional staff and elected officials, are more than willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for advice on how to repair or repave a road, but are reluctant to pay a fraction of that for professional advice on protecting or growing significant portions of their annual budget.

In the past decade or so in California, local governing bodies have typically placed a total of approximately 400 measures on local bal lots every two years. That is to say, a city council or county board of supervisors will vote to place a question before voters: everything from sales and parcel taxes to bond measures, land use decisions and term limits. More than half of these measures are defeated, a simply stunning statistic. These losses are troubling for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that in most cases, careful research could have spared city officials the loss of financial resources associated with calling for an election and the loss of political capital and good will with its citizenry. It’s not good governance to ask residents to vote on a measure that ultimately loses by 80 percent.

A well thought-out poll by a profession al opinion research firm with experi ence in local government can ascertain quite accurately your residents’ interests. Quantifying resident opinions on service satisfaction levels, confidence in their city government and receptivity to a tax increase and of what sort is more than just good government -- it’s common sense. This investment, dollar for dollar, is perhaps one of the most prudent you can make prior to moving forward with your measure. More importantly, it prevents the city council from wasting good will with the voters.

I can’t tell you how many calls I get every September from city council members in a panic about the state of their sales tax measure scheduled for the election just two months away.

"Can you help us?" a stressed voice at the end of the line asks.

"Let’s see, you haven’t polled your measure. You have no idea how much your residents are willing to tax themselves, for what services or at what level. You have about 60 days to convince your voters that you need to increase the city’s annual budget by 15 percent -- and there has been no organized campaign activity since the council voted to place this before the voters. Is that right?" I ask.

"Yeah, that sums it up. Are we in trouble?"

A Vote of Confidence in the City Government

At its core, a vote of the people on a tax increase is fundamentally a validation of the trust and confidence your residents have in your city council. I have run many campaigns in cities that were considered conservative or "anti tax" where the tax increase passed handily simply because the citizenry had confidence that their leaders could be trusted to handle the monies in an efficient, accountable and responsible manner that would improve the local quality of life.

The reverse is also true. I have seen many a campaign in areas of the state that could be defined as liberal and "pro tax" where a seemingly simple measure goes down in flames because there is acrimony or divi sion on a council, or where a recent scandal or financial problems plague a city.

In fact, so important is this sentiment that I would (and have) advised cities against going forward on a tax increase if there is public division on a council about the merits of the increase. If one city council member is vocally and publicly opposed to your measure -- even if the other four are in strong agreement -- the likelihood of the measure passing decreases dramatically.

The Value of Community Buy-In

Not long ago, I was advising a city at tempting for the third time to pass a local sales tax measure. On the previous two attempts they had not hired a profession-al advisor or run a professional campaign, and lost by a slim margin. One of my first questions to the city was, "Where does the local chamber of commerce stand on this measure? "

"They opposed us the last two times, so I suppose they won’t support us this time," was the reply.

"What reasons did they give for not supporting the measures last time?" I asked.

"None. Actually, we never asked them for their support."

Well, if you don’t ask for support, you can’t expect to get it. Needless to say, our first order of business was to ask for chamber support. Not surprisingly, the chamber was amenable to support with one simple modification. They wanted an independent citizen oversight com mittee that would publicly release their finding of the city’s management of these new funds. Not only was this an easy fix, it was a "good government" solution. We made the change and the measure passed easily a few months later.

This tactic isn’t just for business groups or taxpayer organizations, though in most instances it’s important to meet with them first to prevent or mitigate any vocal opposition. Every campaign or public outreach effort should contain a long list of community-based organizations and groups that have influence locally. Many may not be traditionally aligned with political activism; in fact, the less so the better.

Work early to organize and seek buy-in from homeowner associations, ethnic organizations, environmental and busi ness groups, labor organizations and philanthropic networks. Frequently the local Little League leadership has more sway in community affairs than some city council members, so be creative and take time to identify who these influential groups might be. Then use some good old-fashioned shoe leather and get these groups to sign on. There are few things more impressive in a campaign than a broad range of organizations signed on
in support.

Fight the Fight on Your Own Ground

Tax increase measures are, simply put, very easy to beat. Any opposition, even token opposition from a perennial gadfly, can drastically decrease your chances of success. It doesn’t take much for the local taxpayer group or chamber of commerce to take a measure down by poking holes in the proponents’ arguments. The op position arguments usually fall into one of two categories:

1. The city doesn’t need the money. If they had their priorities straight and could handle their financial affairs they wouldn’t need to increase our taxes; and/or

2. The city can’t be trusted to handle the money. Didn’t they just approve a generous benefits plan for the public unions? Don’t you think we have too many bloated salaries at the top level of management?

These messages are effective and tricky to counter because they correctly recognize that the burden of proof on the sales tax measure resides with the city council and the residents’ confidence in their local government. How you respond to these arguments will be important in determining whether or not you will have a disciplined and focused campaign message or a disorganized mess that will play into the opponents’ position that these folks shouldn’t be trusted to handle the finan cial affairs of the city, let alone get more of your money through another tax increase.

Don’t Argue About Minutiae

Often, opponents of these measures just want to be heard. At best, they can be a valuable source of community support who can offer good ways of including ac countability and oversight provisions of the new funds. At worst, they can be gratuitous critics of a council or government, whose real goal is nothing more than to bring the city to a grinding halt.

Know the difference between these two types of opponents. How you engage them or, more importantly, do not engage them will make a difference in the outcome of your race.

Also, recognize that if you’re arguing over how much the city spent on paper clips last year instead of demonstrating how the measure is going to improve your residents’ quality of life, you’re already losing the fight.

Messengers Versus the Message

Another old adage in the political arena is: "Who is saying what is more important than what is being said." It’s a complicated way of saying choose the right messen ger. It can be a challenge to persuade city council members to take a back seat on a revenue measure. This makes sense; after all, they are clearly community leaders in their own right, they have a greater understanding of public policy than the average citizen, and they often have spent a lot of political capital and many late nights debating the merits of bringing the measure before the voters.

However, in some instances, a politician asking for a tax increase can be perceived as just that: a politician looking for a tax increase. It is much more powerful having a policeman, firefighter or even a crime victim serving as the face of your attempt to get a law enforcement tax passed than a council member looking to discuss the finer points of a city budget. The same goes for environmental and homeowner groups looking to preserve open space, or chamber groups and taxpayers looking for greater accountability in government ser vices. Choose your messengers carefully. Sometimes it just makes sense to have the elected officials take a back seat.

Politics is still a careful balance between art and science, and it always will be. However, it is undeniable that the science behind campaigns has become exponen tially more sophisticated than when I first began running them 15 years ago. Pollsters can determine with a very high degree of certainty exactly what kind of a revenue enhancement (tax increase) your constituents are amenable to, at what level and what services they want funded first. Public relations professionals and political consultants have refined their craft to a remarkable degree, allowing for a clear road map to better engage your citizens in a ballot measure campaign.

Today, things like micro-targeting, blogging and e-mail chains are standard func tions in campaigns, but they didn’t even exist as recently as five years ago. In the same way that technologies have changed policing, community services and public works over the past few years, so have those changes occurred in polling, mar keting and campaigning.

Finally, the best strategy is to seek professional advice early in the process. Talk to an expert prior to drafting language for the measure, before you definitively agree on what kind of tax and how much. Even if you don’t ultimately hire someone, most professional pollsters and communica tions firms are more than willing to share thoughts and ideas with you. After all, they understand the hard task that lies ahead of you and that even the best ideas don’t come to pass without careful preparation and a lot of hard work.