Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tax increase marketing lessons

The City of Fountain’s recent sales tax increase of .75% to pay for certain infrastructure projects, took a lot of people by surprise when it passed. After all, we’re in the midst of a major recession and tax increase proposals generally don’t sell well around here. So how were proponents able to eek out a victory on this one?

I should point out, in the interest of full disclosure, that Easy Street Designs, the publishers of this paper, did the printing for Moving Fountain Forward, the group that was advocating for the tax increase. However, we were neither advocates for or opponents of the measure.

I believe this was a case where proponents put together an effective marketing strategy early, and opponents simply didn’t believe citizens would vote in favor of a tax increase. First, proponents put together the organization; Moving Fountain Forward. They hired a PR firm; Gain-Stovall. Mayor Jeri Howells submitted an article, which we published, several months ago supporting the measure. A public hearing was held. Signs were posted at intersections and railroad crossings (items on the wish list) and flyers were passed out door to door.

I think more importantly, the campaign didn’t contain the threatening tone of similar proposals by municipalities such as Colorado Springs. There was no implication that police or fire or other public safety spending would be cut if the tax increase did not pass. There was a “wish-list” of intersection and street improvements that the tax increase was specifically requested for. It gave the impression that you were getting something for your extra money, rather than threatening to give you less if you didn’t pay up.

There was also a total lack of organized resistance. Again, I believe opponents just took for granted that most people would vote no. Then Fountain Valley Chamber of Commerce president, Scott Turner, did submit an article, which we published, which didn’t take sides on the issue, but did point out to local business people that this was an issue that will directly effect them and their customers and something they should be aware of and be involved in. We did not receive any submissions opposing the measure.

Some have questioned the fact that TV reports showed the measure failing by 7 votes initially, showing 100% of precincts reporting, but when the final tally was reported the next morning, it had passed. Liz Olson of El Paso County explained that the results reported at closing included all ballots which had been counted by 5pm. Results were updated again at 9:30pm and again at 3:10 am. When the additional 488 mail-in ballots and 9 in-person ballots were added, the measure had passed. Any ballots received within 8 days after the election which were post marked by election day and received no later than 8 days after the election from uniformed services electors serving overseas were also counted. Results were not official until cerified by the canvassing board, in this case, on Monday, 11/16. For more details on the election results, see http://www.elpasoelections.com/2009coordinated/results.htm.

Lessons learned? If you’re a ballot initiative proponent, a positive message is more effective than threats. If you’re an opponent, take nothing for granted.