For positive election outcomes, involve the voters

November 11, 2007 11:00 pm

Backers of parcel tax increases aimed at improving fire protection and ambulance service in parts of Tuolumne County are still licking their wounds in the wake of lopsided defeats at the polls last Tuesday.

All three measures required a two-thirds' majority for approval, but none drew even half the vote.

In Calaveras County, supporters of Measure J — a $31 million jail construction bond issue — are still recovering their breath after a razor-thin victory Tuesday.

The morals of these stories?

• You can ask voters for money here in the foothills, but you better have some darn good arguments.

• Don't go asking your constituents for cash without talking with them first.

• And it's a good idea to keep proposed tax increases or bond payments affordable.

A good cause alone, clearly, is not enough.

Better fire protection is right up there with motherhood and apple pie, but nearly 60 percent of Mi-Wuk-Sugar Pine Fire District voters would have nothing to do with the 250 percent parcel tax increase asked by Measure R. Getting engines to your burning house quickly is fine, they seemed to say, but not when it involves hiking the fire tax on every lot in town from $80 to $300.

Another common refrain among R opponents was that the Mi-Wuk fire district didn't include them in the discussion that led to the ballot measure in the first place.

The story is similar in Southern Tuolumne County, where voters Tuesday relegated Measures S and T to the electoral graveyard.

Ambulance service is not only important, but can be a matter of life and death. But in Groveland more than half the voters (52 percent) said they would take their chances rather than pay parcel tax hikes that ranged form 50 to 400 percent.

In Don Pedro, where 62 percent of voters dealt Measure T a wincing defeat, the story was the same: The promise of prompt ambulance service was not worth a 500 percent fee increase on commercial parcels.

Wally Anker, who led the informal No on S campaign, called the ballot backlash a "voter revolt." But more likely it was the result of voters who weren't part of the loop that generated the two ballot measures in the first place.

That many South County residents are almost automatically skeptical of anything proposed by the county government Big Brothers in Sonora probably didn't help.

Then there's Calaveras County's Measure J: It's tough to pull off a two-thirds majority win anywhere, but Sheriff Dennis Downum did it, albeit just barely.

His secret was that he had no secrets at all: The abysmal and crowded conditions in the county's old and decrepit jail have been documented for years. So has the number of crooks Downum puts back on the street because there is no room at the inn.

The sheriff invited any doubters to take a guided tour of the jail themselves. And a poll of voters showed that the calculated annual bond payments — less than $20 per $100,000 in assessed valuation — would be acceptable to most.

The strategy worked: Measure J, alone among Tuolumne and Calaveras county ballot issues, prevailed.

The lesson? In tackling any issue, involve the public early and often.

It's advice that should be taken to heart as district and county leaders look for acceptable answers to the fire protection and ambulance service funding problems in Mi-Wuk Village, Groveland and Don Pedro.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.