Editorial: How not to pass an important public safety sales tax

Renae Metzger monitors calls at the Red River Regional Dispatch Center in downtown Fargo in May. Forum file photo

There’s no other way to say this: Cass County leaders failed to adequately inform voters of the importance of the proposed half-cent sales tax to pay for important upgrades to the 911 and emergency radio systems. It failed in the Nov. 6 election.

As a result, what would have been a one-year sales tax shared by all shoppers in Cass County will instead become a five-year property tax estimated to cost $15 per $100,000 of property value per year in the county.

It’s true that elected officials in North Dakota are barred by law from promoting ballot issues. But other local officials, including school board members, have adapted by finding respected surrogates to inform the public of the need.

Who, after all, doesn’t want a good 911 and emergency radio system?

“As first responders, communication is our lifeline,” Heith Janke, West Fargo’s police chief, said before the vote. The case for the communication upgrades was made in a press conference in early October, but that was about the extent of local officials’ public awareness campaign for a $15 million initiative that is vital to public safety.

The proposed half-cent Cass County sales tax failed by a vote of 48 percent in favor, 52 percent opposed. It’s pretty clear that more voters would have approved the tax if they understood that failure of the sales tax would result in a property tax increase. North Dakota voters, as any politician knows, hate property taxes more than any other tax.

What could have been — and should have been — a one-year sales tax now will saddle Cass County property owners for five years. Hold your applause.

Another problem: The confusing, obtuse wording of the ballot measure. Voters who didn’t closely follow the news very likely had no clue that they were being asked to vote for upgrades of the 911 and emergency radio systems.

A friendly suggestion to local leaders: Don’t allow lawyers to write ballot measures. By all means, run the ballot wording past lawyers to ensure legal sufficiency, but have someone capable of writing in plain English draft a proposal the average person can easily understand.

We don’t mean to be too critical. We acknowledge that this newspaper, among other news outlets, could have gone further in covering this issue. (We did report on and support the 911 tax in our editorial endorsements.) But newspapers are not responsible for running a political campaign.

It’s worth noting that on Nov. 6 Fargo voters passed approval voting for city commissioners, becoming the first city in the nation to do so. But there was an effective public information campaign in support of the change, and voters embraced the novel idea. Let this serve as a reminder that tax increases don’t pass themselves. Leaders must find ways to ensure that their voters are well informed about the need for a tax increase, and can readily understand what they’re voting on when handed the ballot.