By David Anderson
The City of Lakewood is contemplating a special election on Feb.11, 2014, likely for the purpose of raising property taxes to pay for street improvements. The election would cost Lakewood taxpayers an estimated $99,515.50 according to figures supplied by the Election’s Cost department of the Pierce County Auditor’s office.
In contrast, had Lakewood’s City Council placed this measure on the upcoming November General election, out-of-pocket costs borne by the residents would have been a mere $21,324.75 – nearly one-fifth as much.
But Lakewood missed the deadline.
According to the Auditor’s office, odd year General elections average $0.75 cents per registered voter.
“Special elections tend to run between $2.00 and $4.00 per registered voter,” said Mary Schmidtke, Fiscal Manager with the Election Costs department for Pierce County.
“But we’ve seen them go as high as $8.00. For example, the 2012 April Special election cost $4.18 per registered voter and the 2012 February Election cost $2.60 per registered voter. Again the cost is extremely dependent upon the number of jurisdictions and their number of registered voters.”
The not-so-grand near $100 Grand figure plus perhaps as much as another $20,000 for a survey should Lakewood continue to pursue its Special election gambit, is based on the number Schmidtke picked – $3.50 per registered voter of which there are 28,433 in Lakewood.
Compounding the cost overruns, now a survey – presumably to measure how willing taxpayers are to have their taxes increased to pay for streets – could run upwards of another $20,000.
Page 11 of the city’s “Fall 2013 Newsletter and Recreation Guide” delivered to mailboxes throughout the city in recent days indicates there will be a “Street and Parks Survey Coming Soon.”
Perusing how your elected representatives voted to contract with GMA Market Research Company to implement the survey and at what cost yielded no results.
The investigation did however uncover a warning from Matt Kaser, Acting City Attorney, to the city council that surveys are suspect – if not illegal – when used to influence an election.
“Surveys which could be viewed as being ‘used for the purpose of appealing, directly or indirectly, for votes or for financial or other support or opposition in any election campaign,’ should be avoided,” Kaser wrote.
Said survey should be avoided not only for legal reasons but for financial.
“As a general rule,” states an August, 2012 publication entitled “Common Pitfalls in Conducting a Survey,” available on the Municipal Research Services Center website, “surveys are an expensive method of obtaining information.”
In a search of Lakewood’s survey history, what other cities have done was compared to what Lakewood could do. Shoreline, a city of comparable size to Lakewood, 54,000 and 58,839 respectively, hired a consultant out of Kansas to administer its survey at a cost of $36,000. Walla Walla paid $24,000. Elway Research in Seattle indicated Lakewood “could expect to pay ‘around $20,000’ for a citizen survey that would take about 6-8 weeks to complete.’
The industry standard, as Lakewood apparently implies, by which major capital improvements and significant policy and infrastructure decisions may be said to be ‘approved,’ is a favorable response from only 400 people. Less than that in the Human Services survey of 2008.
In a city of nearly 60,000.
In banking, when interest earns interest it’s said to be ‘compounding.’ So in foot-dragging, Lakewood has a compounding problem.
Nearly a year ago, in a Tacoma News Tribune November 24, 2012 (TNT) article, Lakewood council members intimated the possibility that in 2013-14 they would be asking Lakewood voters “to raise property taxes to pay for road work and street maintenance.”
But eight months later, on July 9, 2013 the TNT reported that “the Lakewood City Council continues to spin its wheels over asking voters to approve a fee or tax for street maintenance.”
And by then, with an August 7 deadline looming by which to send a measure to the November ballot less than a month away and still undecided what to do, the council now would affectively ask voters to pay the penalty for having turned in their homework assignment late.
Throw in $20,000-plus for a survey and $100,000 for a not-so-special Special election, those two figures combined equal nearly one-third of Lakewood’s annual budget shortfall.
Late last year when then Lakewood City Manager Andrew Neiditz proposed increasing taxes on Lakewood’s residents – specifically for electricity and gas utilities – it was in order to generate an additional $350,000 annually to help balance the 2013-14 budget.
In that same Tacoma News Tribune November 24, 2012 article it appeared initially that the council legitimately was concerned that raising taxes in hard times was neither a representative nor compassionate action.
Then-Mayor Doug Richardson said back in November, “People have to heat their homes and cook their food. Given the current economic times, we didn’t think it was wise to increase that tax.”
That was November.
“After more than two years of research and discussion, including separate reviews and recommendations by a citizen advisory board and an ad hoc committee of three council members, the full council remains unsure what fee or tax should be levied and what the money should go toward.”
It’s now late September.
And now to a missed-deadline add $120,000 for a special election – to include a suspect survey – to increase your taxes.