With another general election in the books, Cowlitz County voters appear to have sent a clear message: No new taxes.
Residents from Longview to Woodland voted down every proposed property tax increase, sales tax hike and levy lid lift on the ballot. Cowlitz voters also registered their disapproval with three state-level tax bills by overwhelming margins.
In total, nearly $150 million in new spending on public works was rejected. Castle Rock’s annual library levy was the only tax-related measure to succeed.
Were the results an expression of anti-tax sentiment currently pervading the county? Or did six big-ticket ballot measures go down for their own set of specific reasons?
In a series of interviews, public officials pointed to a mix of factors that could explain why voters were unwilling to open their pocketbooks to local governments this year.
Mirroring national trends, the job market in Cowlitz County has improved since the recession — but wage growth has been stagnant. As a result, many taxpayers have felt pinched as their tax burden has increased.
The number of jobs in Cowlitz County hit an all-time high in July, with nonfarm employment reaching 40,000 jobs, according to the state. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate dropped to 5.6 percent — more than a percentage point and a half lower than the same time last year.
But wage polarization has increased over the past decade. The top 10 percent of earners have seen their wages jump 21 percent, while the median wage has only increased 4 percent, according to the annual American Community Survey. Between the lowest-paid jobs and the median, hourly wages only grew between 0 percent and 3 percent.
“That kind of stagnation may have played a role,” said Scott Bailey, a Vancouver-based economist for the state Employment Security Department.
Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber volunteered two additional statistics that could help explain why many local voters were resistant to tax increases this year. Nearly 40 percent of individuals in the county qualify for Medicaid, Weber noted, meaning they live within 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
“We’ve got a lot of people that just don’t have the kind of family income that you need if you’re going to continually support taxes,” he said.
Weber also highlighted the median family income in Cowlitz County, which is roughly 30 percent lower than the rest of the state. The median family in Cowlitz earns $47,452 per year, while the median family in Washington earns $61,062.
It’s against this economic backdrop that six different ballot measures were denied.
But the economy is only part of the story.
“It’s also about how local jurisdictions make their case and engage with voters,” Bailey said.
Messaging vs. money
With more than 9,600 off-year election ballots cast by Longview School District voters, the district’s $121.6 million school bond received nearly 58 percent support, just shy of the needed 60 percent supermajority.
Some elected officials are shaking their heads at the bond committee’s failure to submit a supporting statement for the county’s voter pamphlet by the required deadline. Both the committee and district were reminded twice by county election officials — once before the initial deadline on Aug. 1 and again when the deadline was extended by 10 days.
“It sends a very clear signal to folks who want the information that here’s a group of people who don’t care enough to meet the deadlines,” said Weber, who strongly supported the plan to rebuild three old elementary schools and remodel a preschool. “That was embarrassing because the only thing you could read then were the negative arguments.”
It’s impossible to tell whether the bond would have passed if a supporting statement made it into the voter’s pamphlet, but the absence of one didn’t help the district’s cause.
People could have voted against the bond for any number of other reasons. Although the proposal was three times more expensive than any previous voter-approved school bond, it contained zero money to upgrade the district’s athletic facilities. And some voters could have been reluctant to vote for a bond focused on elementary schools when the school board’s position on a high school merger is still unclear. Opponents have also argued that the bond would not have accommodated population growth in West Longview.
In Woodland, Mayor Will Finn said a lack of vocal public support contributed to the narrow defeat of a levy lid lift that would have allowed the city’s thinly-stretched police force to hire two more officers. The measure failed by a mere 20 votes, according to Friday’s ballot count.
There are only about 1.7 officers per 1,000 population in Woodland, the department says. The average for small cities is 2.4 officers per 1,000 population.
Finn said the city has a large group of individuals who actively support the police department through social media and public testimony — but he never saw any of them campaigning.
The city is only allowed to provide fact-based information to its residents, he said.
“Even a little bit of effort by some of those community members would have made a tremendous difference,” he said. “I’m disappointed that they didn’t really step up and have some signs made or stand on the corner or send out a mailer.”
In addition to the levy lid lift, Woodland voters also rejected a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to fund a transportation benefit district, which is intended to improve streets. Woodlanders also soundly rejected a $7.9 million bond proposal by the Woodland Swimming Pool and Recreation District, with only 46 percent of people voting in favor of the measure, which needed a 60 percent supermajority.
Finn said it’s possible the city asked for too much this year.
“Maybe we overdid it,” he said.
That could be the case in Kalama, as well, where 65 percent of the voters spurned the city’s plan to build a new $2.7 million police station at Maruhn Park. The price tag and site of the proposed building became a flashpoint in the city’s three-way mayor race, in which underdog Mike Reuter notched an 8-point win.
“It was a lot of money,” said Reuter, who also sits on the Kalama Planning Commission.
Reuter said people were also skeptical of the city’s claim that building on a city-owned park was the cheapest option. Most of the money saved by avoiding the land acquisition process would have been negated by the cost of developing the park, he said. The city also sent the wrong message by planting a sign that announced the park as the future home of the Kalama Police Department before the bond had passed, said Kathi Pilcher, who helped author the statement opposing the measure.
“A lot of citizens were upset by that,” she said.
Pilcher said a number of citizens also felt like the city was trying to shame its residents after an unflattering report about the police force’s unsafe working conditions was printed in the The Daily News. The story was followed by a similar segment that aired on Portland-based KGW-TV.
“We think the police deserve a new home, absolutely,” she said. “But the citizens want a say in where it will be.”
Kalama School District Superintendent Eric Nerison said the election results highlight the need for clear communication as the district prepares to ask residents to approve a $64.3 million school bond in February. The plan would rebuild Kalama Elementary School, give middle schoolers additional classrooms and upgrade Kalama High School’s science labs and vocational facilities. It would cost the owner of a home valued at $200,000 an extra $38 per month or $456 annually, the district estimates.
“You can talk about levy rates all you want, but none of that matters unless the voters say we need to do this,” Nerison said. “That’s why it’s so important for us to be clear and answer questions ahead of time about the ‘why.’ ”
Doing more with less
Local state Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) said Cowlitz voters have sent an unambiguous message over the past several election cycles.
“The voice of the people is clear,” he told The Daily News. “We, as elected officials and the local governments, need to do more with less. That’s the challenge, but that’s what he have to try and do.”
Walsh said it’s clear that taxpayers desire good services — and in some cases more services — but they also want greater efficiency.
In Woodland, that could mean cutting back on some non-essential police functions.
Finn, the mayor, said the city may cease helping people who have locked keys inside their cars. (The department is the only one in the county that still provides lockout services.) Woodland police could also stop responding to non-injury vehicle collisions, he said.
Finn said the city is also trying to streamline services at City Hall and will explore a broad initiative to attract more businesses when four new council members are sworn in. The hope is to lure new companies to the area in order to broaden the city’s tax base, he said.
“But we also have to spend money in order to make money,” he said. “We’re still trying to find that balance and how we’re going to get there.”