Category Archives: Ballot Question

Municipal Spending Caps

How to structure a municipal spending cap.

What are tax and expenditure caps?

Tax and expenditure limits (TELs) restrict the level or growth of government revenues or spending to a fixed numerical target or to increases in an index such as population, inflation, personal income, or some combination of these measures.

These limits are common on state governments. They are less common in city government.
Here are two examples:

Nashua, NH

  • 56-c. Limitation on budget increases

Recognizing that final tax rates for the City of Nashua are set by the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration pursuant to RSA 21-J:35(1), the mayor, the board of aldermen, and all departments in the City of Nashua including the mayor’s office, aldermanic office, legal department, administrative services division, community services division, community development division, school department, public works division, fire department, police department, public libraries, parking garages and cemeteries shall prepare their annual budget proposals and the Board of Aldermen shall act upon such proposals in accordance with the mandates in this paragraph.

In establishing a combined annual municipal budget for the next fiscal year, the mayor and the board of aldermen shall consider total expenditures not to exceed an amount equal to the combined annual budget of the current fiscal year, increased by a factor equal to the average of the changes in the Consumer Price Index-Urban (CPI-U) of the three (3) calendar years immediately preceding budget adoption as published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

This provision shall not prevent the mayor and the board of aldermen from establishing a combined annual municipal budget below this limit.

This provision shall not prevent the mayor and the board of aldermen from appropriately funding any programs or accounts mandated to be paid from municipal funds by state and federal law.

 

  • 56-d. Exception to budget limitation

The total or any part of principal and interest payments of any municipal bond, whether established for school or municipal purposes, may be exempted from the limitation defined in paragraph 56-c upon an affirmative vote of at least ten (10) aldermen. This decision shall be made annually.

In addition, capital expenditures deemed necessary by the mayor and the board of aldermen, subject to recommendation by the capital improvements committee (ref. Paragraph 77-a of the City Charter) may similarly be exempted from this limitation upon an affirmative vote of at least ten (10) aldermen.

 

  • 56-e. Reserve fund

In the event actual property tax collections and/or revenues exceed the budget allocation prescribed in paragraph 56-c, plus additional expenditure authorized pursuant to paragraph 56-d, such excess funds shall be deposited in a reserve account specifically established for the purpose.

These funds shall be drawn upon as a contingent revenue source n succeeding fiscal years, to offset a part of the budget estimated otherwise having to be funded by property taxes, or for any other municipal budget purposes, or to meet federal and state mandates, or for unanticipated emergency expenses, or as a property tax credit, upon an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members of the board of aldermen.

 

  • 56-f. Deficit budget control

The actual annual municipal budget shall not incur a deficit, wherein total spending excess total income during the fiscal year. If the total actual and projected income from all sources, including property taxes, municipal, county, state, and federal revenues, and funds transferred from the reserve fund established pursuant to paragraph 56-e during a fiscal year fails to meet actual and projected expenditures for the remaining part of that fiscal year, an automatic, equal and immediate across-the-board percentile cut shall be instituted in the annual budget of every city department cited in paragraph 56-c. The city comptroller (ref. Paragraph 50-b of the City Charter) shall determine the status of actual and projected income vs. expenditures for this purpose, in coordination with the city treasurer (ref. Paragraph 42 of the City Charter) and determine the requisite numeric percentile cut. The board of aldermen, upon notification by the city comptroller and the city treasurer, shall then order the cut.

This cut may be exempted or adjusted upon an affirmative vote of three-fourths of the members of the Board of Aldermen.

This provision shall not prevent the mayor and the board of aldermen from appropriately funding any programs or accounts mandated to be paid from municipal funds by state and federal law.

Marco Island, FL

Section 1.04. – Expenditure Limitations.

Notwithstanding Section 1.03 above, operating expenditures shall be limited to an increase from the prior year’s expenditures of three percent (3%) plus the then-current Federal C.O.L.A. (Department of Labor, Bureau of Statistics, Consumer Price Index) per annum; except that this shall not apply to: emergencies; capital expenditures as provided in Section 6.01; expenditures relating to projects or programs funded by grants, gifts, or impact fees; and expenditures, including debt service payments, relating to utility or other enterprise funds which are intended to be self-supporting for governmental accounting purposes; expenditures related to extension of the City’s wastewater utility system to serve unsewered areas provided such expenditures are funded by general obligation bonds or other obligations, including loans, approved by referendum of the electors of the City; and debt service payments related to such obligations.

(Ord. No. 09-15, § 2, 11-9-2009, referendum 1-26-2010)

Section 6.01. – Initiative and Referendum.

(1)        Ten percent (10%) of the qualified electors of the City shall have the power to petition the Council to propose an ordinance or to require reconsideration of an adopted ordinance, provided that such power shall not extend to the budget or capital program or to any ordinances relating to appropriations of money, levy of taxes, or salaries of City officers or employees, but shall extend to an ordinance providing any single capital expenditure in excess of $250,000. If the Council fails to adopt such ordinance so proposed, or to repeal such adopted ordinance, without any change in substance, the Council shall place the proposed ordinance, or the repeal of the adopted ordinance, on the ballot at the next general election, or, in Council’s discretion, at a special election.

(2)        A minimum of five (5) electors may commence initiative or referendum proceedings by filing with the City Manager or other designated official, an affidavit stating they will constitute the petitioners’ committee and be responsible for circulating the petition and filing it in proper form, stating their names and addresses and specifying the address to which all notices to the committee are to be sent, and setting out in full the proposed initiative ordinance or citing the ordinance sought to be reconsidered. Promptly after the affidavit of the petitioner’s committee is filed, the City Manager or other official designated by the Council shall, at the committee’s request, issue appropriate blank petitions to the petitioner’s committee at the committee’s expense.

(Ord. No. 09-15, § 2, 11-9-2009, referendum 1-26-2010)

 

Municipal Spending Cap Survey

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Civil Asset Forfeiture Model Language

Model language for a municipal charter amendment to address civil asset forfeiture. This language has been tailored to Michigan cities.

New Section ____ of the Charter of the City of ­­____, Michigan

Section ____. Property Seizure and Forfeiture.

As used in this section, “property” shall be liberally construed to include assets and possessions; “employee” includes anyone acting under the authority of the city. A conviction of a criminal offense is a prerequisite to forfeiture and the transfer to the City of _____ of title to property directly used in or derived from that offense. All revenues from forfeited property, including revenue derived from sharing proceeds of forfeited property from cooperation with other federal, state, or local agencies, shall be placed in a separate fund, used only to pay costs directly related to local street repair, and shall not be earmarked or allocated to law enforcement or code enforcement. At any time, a property owner may ask the City or a court to return property that was wrongly seized or because there is no reason for the City to continue to hold the property. No bond shall be required on any property seized under authority of the city. If property is wrongfully seized, the City has no reason to continue to hold the property, or the property owner is not convicted of a criminal offense that has a forfeiture provision, the city shall return, replace, or provide full compensation for any property damaged, defaced, or devalued as a result of seizure by city employees. Records of all property seizures shall be indexed by date, department, name of owner, property type, and seizure value, and include details of the conviction. These records shall be published monthly on the city’s publicly-accessible website consistent with Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act 442 of 1976.

 

Let’s break it down:

 

The language is a proposed charter amendment. The first line identifies this as a new law, gives the section of the charter, and the city name. If the language is approved this will not appear in the charter.

New Section ____ of the Charter of the City of ­­____, Michigan

 

Section title. This will appear in the charter. Not everyone is familiar with the phrase “civil asset forfeiture.” In this model “Property Seizure” was used to clarify the issue.

Section ____. Property Seizure and Forfeiture.

 

It is common to provide definitions for terms in the amendment.

                As used in this section, “property” shall be liberally construed to include assets and possessions; “employee” includes anyone acting under the authority of the city.

 

This is the meat and potatoes. Don’t take property unless a law has been broken, and then only take the property involved in the crime or gained because of the crime.

A conviction of a criminal offense is a prerequisite to forfeiture and the transfer to the City of _____ of title to property directly used in or derived from that offense.

 

This line is for cases of forfeiture with a conviction and to address revenue sharing with a state or federal agencies. Law enforcement should not be policing for profit. Proceeds from the sale of property should not go to those taking the property. In this model, the money is used for street repair. Check state statutes, forfeiture proceeds may be required to go into a specific fund. This model attempts to address the problem of local law enforcement teaming up with federal or state agencies to avoid state or local prohibitions on civil asset forfeiture.

All revenues from forfeited property, including revenue derived from sharing proceeds of forfeited property from cooperation with other federal, state, or local agencies, shall be placed in a separate fund, used only to pay costs directly related to local street repair, and shall not be earmarked or allocated to law enforcement or code enforcement.

 

Property owners should not be deprived of their assets indefinitely.

At any time, a property owner may ask the City or a court to return property that was wrongly seized or because there is no reason for the City to continue to hold the property.

 

Many states require a property owner to pay a bond before they are allowed to challenge a seizure.

No bond shall be required on any property seized under authority of the city.

 

If the items seized are perishable or have been damaged, the government should replace or fix the property. It’s important innocent owners not be penalized.

If property is wrongfully seized, the City has no reason to continue to hold the property, or the property owner is not convicted of a criminal offense that has a forfeiture provision, the city shall return, replace, or provide full compensation for any property damaged, defaced, or devalued as a result of seizure by city employees.

 

Transparency is needed to ensure the city complies with the law. This model includes the statutes dealing with government transparency in Michigan.

Records of all property seizures shall be indexed by date, department, name of owner, property type, and seizure value, and include details of the conviction. These records shall be published monthly on the city’s publicly-accessible website consistent with Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act 442 of 1976.

 

 

Civil Asset Forfeiture

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An Easy Fix?

Tacoma, WA

Alex Hays recently submitted signatures for a ballot measure which will change the city government. The ballot measure proposes a strong mayor form of government. But he made a mistake.

But there was one mistake. In an effort to redraft the city charter, there was mix up and Hays accidentally removed a section of the charter that gives people the power to create initiatives and referendums. If passed, this initiative would take that power away from people in Tacoma.

“We reacted to the city’s request that we put together a different version. They wanted the entire charter reproduced. That made it a little harder to get right and unfortunately that created a chance for this mistake to occur,” said Hays.

Now the city is claiming nothing can be done.

Citizens signed this petition and the measure should appear as signed by citizens. However, if the city council sincerely wants to retain the initiative and referendum portion of the charter (and offer that choice to voters,) they can craft a ballot question that will do the same changes as the petition submitted by Hays, but include the initiative section of the charter. Then the ballot title should make clear what each charter amendment includes:

  • Strong mayor, tighter term limits, and no initiative and referendum.
  • Strong mayor, tighter term limits, and keep initiative and referendum.

The issue getting the highest number of votes would be approved, unless neither ballot question gets over 50% and no changes would be made. I hope the city council acts quickly to ensure voters have this option.

 

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Two Years Later Wyoming Supreme Court Rules For Petitioners

The Casper clerk rejected signatures that should have counted.

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Gaining The Initiative

Citizens in Sammamish, WA are expected to gain the ability to initiate legislation this fall.

Earlier this year activists circulated petitions to call for an advisory vote to gauge local support of the initiative process. Voters approved the advisory measure 55% to 45%.

The Sammamish City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday to move forward with a resolution that states its intent to adopt citizen-enacted initiative and referendum powers, with Deputy Mayor Kathy Huckabay and Councilmember Tom Odell voting against.

The limited powers allow residents to create or repeal laws within the city by way of petition. The council decided to put the matter up to the public in the April special election. That nonbinding advisory vote passed with 55 percent approval with a 24 percent voter turnout.

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Safeway Drops Legal Challenge To Initiative Signature Gathering

PRESS RELEASE
SAFEWAY DROPS LEGAL CHALLENGE TO INITIATIVE SIGNATURE GATHERING
Citizen Solutions is pleased to announce that Safeway has dropped its legal challenge to initiative signature gathering at its stores throughout Washington state.
Safeway had sued Citizen Solutions and Progressive Campaigns for their activities in gathering signatures on I-1366, a Tax Reform Act, and I-1401, an initiative to protect endangered animals.  Safeway initially sought a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, but dropped that request just hours after Citizens Solutions responded with substantial evidence showing that Safeway stores across the state are modern town centers – in Safeway’s own words.  Two weeks later, just hours after Citizens Solutions formally responded to  all of Safeway’s claims by asserting the rights of initiative sponsors under Washington’s constitutional protection for the initiative process, Safeway threw in the towel and asked simply to drop its law suit.
Safeway’s action to file its lawsuit followed similar claims by other stores, including Fred Meyer.  Safeway’s quick turnabout was an acknowledgement that the Washington Supreme Court decision in the Alderwood Mall case from 1981 firmly protects the right of the people to gather initiative and referendum signatures at malls and other locations that are town centers.  Safeway’s lawsuit was dismissed on July 17, 2015.
Fred Diamondstone
Attorney
1218 Third Ave., Suite 1000
Seattle, WA 98101

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Spending Priorities

When it comes to spending priorities, citizens are often entirely dependent on the stewardship of elected officials and public employees. Most people agree things like roads, fire departments, law enforcement, and schools are core functions of government. And most people are willing to pay taxes to support these services. Yet these are the first things threatened with cuts when politicians would like a tax increase. Politicians threaten to reduce library services rather than sell the city golf course (which consistently loses money. This is why initiative and referendum are often used by citizens when they don’t like the priorities of politicians.

 

Maine:

Stavros Mendros has filed paperwork to begin the referendum process and call for a people’s vote.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A group of concerned Mainers, including three Republican lawmakers, has launched a petition drive for a people’s veto of a controversial bill that extends General Assistance benefits to some immigrants for up to two years.

Mendros is not opposed to immigration but sees the need for prioritizing spending.

“I’m disappointed in the Legislature to come up with $300 million and not take people off of wait-lists. Waiting for nursing homes, our nursing homes are closing down waiting to be properly reimbursed,” Mendros said.

 

 

Milwaukee:

Petitioners want voters to have a say on a new city streetcar project.

If successful, the city would be required to hold a binding referendum before spending $10 million or more to expand or alter the streetcar plan approved by the Common Council in February.

 

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Tax Cap In Ocean City Maryland

The city attorney in Ocean City does not think citizens are allowed to petition for a tax cap. He’s basing his opinion on a tax rollback restriction. However, it is unlikely the court will decide until the city confirms enough petition signatures were submitted.

According to Charter Amendment Procedures for Maryland Municipalities, “the residents of an incorporated city or town may initiate an amendment to a municipal charter by gathering the signatures of at least 20 percent of qualified municipal voters on a petition in the same fashion that a charter amendment approved by a municipal governing body may be petitioned to referendum.”

Once the appropriate number of signatures is verified, the Town of Ocean City will be required to conduct the referendum within 90 days or at the next scheduled election, which is in November of 2016.

“I suspect that there may be some litigation over this petition, and the court is not going to reach a determination if the petition has not been verified with the requisite number of signatures,” Ayres said. “The issue is with the substance of the petition. In my opinion, the substance of the petition violates Section 6-303 of the Tax Property Article of the Maryland Code Annotated. The substance of the petition would amend the charter, so your ability to tax would be capped at the 2009 level of taxes, and that is known as a ‘tax rollback.’ In the case of Board of Election Supervisors vs. Smallwood … the court had ruled tax rollbacks are not proper charter material and violate Section 6-303.”

The Mayor and City Council voted unanimously to request the Board of Elections verify the number of signatures on the petition.

 

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Reform Or Restriction

Disclosure of funding, should petitions require a higher standard than candidates? One San Diego city council member thinks they should.

At a special session of the City Council, meeting as a “committee of the whole,” Gloria will propose a package of regulations that require that petition advertisements identify the top two donors contributing to the drive; impose tighter deadlines for publicly reporting petition campaign contributions and expenses; and revamp the rules on how petitions are formatted

It’s easy for legislators to propose new regulations like these for petitions, they don’t bear the costs. New formatting rules will mean paying attorneys more to draft petitions. These types of regulations are always added to protect us from big money special interests, but they result in making the process more difficult and sometimes impossible for volunteers and small money drives. Big money special interests can pay for lobbyists, they can pay for attorneys to wade through the regulations. Volunteers and grassroots will be the ones tripped up by this law, they don’t have funding to pay CPAs and attorneys to prepare campaign finance reports or spend hours designing new petition templates.

It’s also a bit hypocritical, does councilman Todd Gloria put the names of his two biggest campaign donor on each piece of legislation he proposes? That’s a reform people might want to see.

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Confused Voters Rarely Vote Yes

Anyone who works ballot question campaigns will tell you, confusing language almost always results in votes against the question. Ballot titles are a big deal. If voters don’t understand they will often vote it down because they don’t understand it. I’ve written about misleading ballot titles here.

What do you think of these recent ballot titles?

San Antonio, Texas, Voters approved an amendment to require public votes before allowing for light rail or streetcar track.

SHALL THE CITY CHARTER BE AMENDED TO PROVIDE THAT NO GRANT OF PERMISSION TO ALTER OR DAMAGE ANY PUBLIC WAY OF THE CITY FOR THE LAYING OF STREETCAR OR LIGHT RAIL TRACKS SHALL EVER BE VALID, AND NO FUNDS SHALL BE APPROPRIATED AND NO BONDS OR NOTES SHALL BE ISSUED OR SOLD FOR THE PURPOSE OF STREETCAR OR LIGHT RAIL SYSTEMS, UNLESS FIRST APPROVED BY A MAJORITY OF THE QUALIFIED ELECTORS OF THE CITY VOTING AT AN ELECTION CONTAINING A PROPOSITION SPECIFICALLY IDENTIFIED FOR AND LIMITED TO SUCH PURPOSE?

Yes or No

Some reports claimed this was confusing, but voters approved it by about 2-1.

 

Arlington, Texas, Voters approve a ban on red light cameras.

Addition of Section 12 of Article X of the City Charter to prohibit photographic traffic signal enforcement.

For or Against

I consider this a little more confusing. Voters approved it 59% to 41%

 

Michigan voters denied a tax increase measure to fund roads.

A proposal to amend the State Constitution to increase the sales/use tax from 6% to 7% to replace and supplement reduced revenue to the School Aid Fund and local units of government caused by the elimination of the sales/use tax on gasoline and diesel fuel for vehicles operating on public roads, and to give effect to laws that provide additional money for roads and other transportation purposes by increasing the gas tax and vehicle registration fees.

The proposed constitutional amendment would:
• Eliminate sales / use taxes on gasoline / diesel fuel for vehicles on public roads.
• Increase portion of use tax dedicated to School Aid Fund (SAF).
• Expand use of SAF to community colleges and career / technical education, and prohibit use for 4-year colleges / universities.
• Give effect to laws, including those that:

o Increase sales / use tax to 7%, as authorized by constitutional amendment.
o Increase gasoline / diesel fuel tax and adjust annually for inflation, increase vehicle registration fees, and dedicate revenue for roads and other transportation purposes.
o Expand competitive bidding and warranties for road projects.
o Increase earned income tax credit

Should this proposal be adopted?

Yes or No

Confusing? Voters shot this down 80% to 19%.

 

A referendum can be even more confusing. Sturgis, Michigan voters voted to keep this law 69% to 31%.

Should the City of Sturgis repeal Part II – Chapter 10 Animals
– Article II Dogs and Cats –
Section 10-33 of the City of Sturgis Code of Ordinances?
Sec. 10-33. – Operating a dog kennel in city prohibited.
No person, group of persons, association or corporation shall keep, operate, or maintain a dog kennel within the limits of the city. A dog kennel, as used in this section means any establishment wherein or whereon more than two dogs are owned, kept, or harbored. This section shall not apply to the owning, keeping, or harboring of any dog pups until they attain the age of four months.
Yes or No

As you can see, ballot titles are not always easy to understand.

 

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