Downtown Columbia voters receive ballots; campaigning for tax intensifies

Deadline for voting on community improvement district issue is Nov. 8
Monday, October 31, 2011 | 6:01 p.m. CDT; updated 11:34 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 31, 2011

COLUMBIA — Residents in the Downtown Community Improvement District have received numerous mailings, phone calls and knocks on their doors encouraging them to approve a half-cent sales tax downtown on all retail sales.

They've also received their ballots.

Laura Gajda, a resident and registered voter in the area, has received emails and brochures. She's fine with the campaigning that has been done.

"There's two sides to an issue, and each side has their prerogative," Gajda said.

Despite the campaigning, Gajda said she'd probably vote against the measure, mostly because of its ambiguity.

"It's very unspecific how they'll use the money," Gajda said. "I really don't think that's been clearly defined."

Resident and local business owner Arnie Fagan said he wouldn't vote for the measure because he couldn't find the district's plan.

"This is just a sales pitch, basically," Fagan said.

The district's website includes a link to its management plan, which is supposed to be a "final draft based on member input and town hall meetings." Fagan, however, noted that the link goes to the website set up by Friends of Downtown Columbia, a committee formed to advocate approval of the initiative.

Board member Skip Walther believes that passing the initiative would be a boon to the entire city.

"This has the potential to greatly enhance services and programs in downtown Columbia that should benefit everybody," Walther said in a previous Missourian article.

According to the website paid for by Friends of Downtown Columbia, "customers, residents, employees, businesses and property owners all benefit from cleaner sidewalks, recycling programs, public technology, more landscaping and a more attractive streetscape."

District officials estimate the tax would generate about $300,000 per year initially, and would increase as it remained in effect. The ballot, which went out Wednesday, lists the following as potential uses for the revenue:

  • Downtown beautification: Examples include street, alley and sidewalk enhancements, sidewalk snow removal and recycling.
  • Technology and public information enhancements: Examples include District-wide Wi-Fi service and smartphone applications for event and product information.
  • Business marketing and development assistance: Examples include downtown promotion and entrepreneurial assistance.
  • Event recruitment and promotion: Examples include street fairs, concerts and specialty markets.
  • Shopping, dining or entertaining enhancements: Examples include sidewalk cafes, street musicians and curbside vendors.

Should the sales tax pass, however, the district board isn't obligated to spend the money on any of those endeavors. Board member Deb Sheals said those are the intended uses.

Fellow board member Skip Walther referred to the items listed on the ballot as more of "a road map" on how to use the money.

Gajda is not averse to improvements to streets and sidewalks, but she said she doesn't think it's the taxpayers' responsibility to pay for Wi-Fi downtown.

"I think if this is what businesses want, then they should pay for it," Gajda said.

In order to pay for the election and campaigning, the district's board started the Friends of Downtown Columbia committee. Of the $5,500 in contributions it has received, at least $3,100 has come from board members or the companies they own or work for, according to a campaign finance report submitted Thursday to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Of the money raised by the group, $4,000 will go to Progressive Political Partners, a consulting firm that has been campaigning and will continue to campaign for the cause through the Nov. 8 deadline for casting ballots.

The mail-in ballots are the only means registered voters in the district have to vote on the initiative. Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren's office sent 118 ballots to registered voters with addresses inside district boundaries.

There will be no polling place for residents to submit their votes. An advantage of polling places is that votes are secret and campaigning is not allowed in or around where one might cast a vote.

These campaigning rules do not apply for mail-in ballots. Advocates for or against a ballot initiative can go door to door and campaign for an issue.

This isn't Boone County's first all-mail ballot election.

In 1993, about 60,000 registered voters received ballots to vote on Proposition 1, a half-cent sales tax for county roads.

The county wound up with about 30,000 accepted ballots, Noren said. That remains the largest all-mail ballot election in Missouri.

"We got nearly 50 percent turnout on an election that would normally have about 10 percent turnout," Noren said. "That's pretty successful."

But Missouri law has made it difficult to have more elections like this.

All-mail elections must be held on dates when no other races or issues are scheduled for a vote, Noren said. Elections for community improvement districts, however, must be held by mail.

"Most of these community improvement districts don't have any voters in them," Noren said. "So the legislature just said 'You'll do them all by mail.'"

Two years ago, Noren said, a community improvement district had an election with four registered voters. The 118 registered voters that were sent ballots in the downtown district is actually a fairly large number.

Noren has been championing mail-in elections since 1985, she said, but with little success. One of the big advantages, she said, is that they're cheaper.

"Costs are so much lower because they don't have to have all this (voting) equipment," she said. "They don't have to set up polling places. They don't have to pay all these workers. They don't have to spend thousands on training people to use the equipment."

Noren said there are few downsides to elections by mail. One problem is that they have higher rates of rejected ballots than elections held at polling places. Some people just forget to sign their ballots, which means they have to be thrown out.

"If you get to a polling place, it's very rare for your ballot to be rejected for you not signing it," she said.

Noren doesn't see a problem with campaigning after ballots are delivered.

"It's not campaigning that can be the problem," she said. "It's voter intimidation."

In a 1995 report, the Federal Election Commission cited some anxiety over the issue.

"The concern is sometimes expressed that the mailing of all ballots increases the opportunity for unscrupulous persons to bribe or intimidate voters because the protections of the polling place cannot be provided at each individual home," the report states. "This is a legitimate concern because those protections are exactly the reason that polling places are established and are so carefully regulated."

Noren agreed with that assessment, but said she doesn't anticipate it will be a problem here.

"I think Boone County's an ideal place to hold mail-in ballot elections," she said.

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