A majority of city councils couldn’t support it and SLO County supervisors wouldn’t back it even though they started the process. Voters followed suit. In the end, there was nowhere near enough support to expand the mosquito and vector control program.
Out of more than 39,000 returned ballots, 60 percent came back opposed to the measure to impose a new tax and build a larger program. The ballots were also weighted based on how much property each voter owned. When appropriately weighted, the vote was 67 percent against the district.
The county gave health officials $280,000 to hire a consultant, craft a proposal, and ask voters for more money. The consultant, SCI Consulting Group, predicted a majority of voters would vote yes; they were wrong. According to an SCI voter survey in January 2008, 53.8 percent were described as saying they would have voted yes, plus or minus 1.9 percent.
So what happened?
Several things changed, Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. Mostly, it was the economy. If approved, the new district would have cost the average homeowner about $10 per year, according to county officials. Even during one of the worst economic downturns in American history, the annual cost was minimal, yet voters apparently didn’t want to see any new taxes.
Gibson said there was probably more to the vote than just the economy.
“There was this persistent sense that this was some sort of bureaucracy that was going to control things,” he said, “and that was not the case.”
SCI representatives did not return calls for comment.
One factor complicating the election was that it wasn’t an election; it was an assessment ballot. An assessment ballot doesn’t require the traditional “yes” and “no” arguments voters are accustomed to. Instead, the county only had to state what they were asking for (money) and what they were trying to do (fight diseases from mosquitoes and other pests). Overall, critics said, the county explanations sounded a lot like “yes” arguments without the appropriate counterpoints.
“I hope it also taught them that you don’t use taxpayer money to figure out how to con them into going along with your point of view,” former SLO City Mayor Peg Pinard said.
Complaining of misinformation and downright confusion throughout the process, county supervisors ultimately did not cast a vote in favor of the tax on behalf of the county. The board of supervisors voted to move forward with the assessment ballot in April 2008, although two supervisor seats changed hands this year. A year later, four supervisors voted again to send the ballots out—Supervisor Frank Mecham voted against the new district.
When the time came, after some mild squabbling, the supervisors gave in and simply didn’t cast their 700 weighted votes resulting from county-held land. Gibson said he was disappointed and wanted a unanimous “yes” vote, but when it was clear that wasn’t going to happen he settled on just not having a “no” vote.
“We had reason to move forward on this,” Gibson said. “It was a question that needed to be put before the public and the public has given an answer on that.”
On the same day the supervisors didn’t vote on the measure they approved a budget that eliminated the county’s existing mosquito and vector control program. Pinard questioned why, if the issue was so important, county officials couldn’t have found a way to fund it without going to taxpayers.
“This was a clear message to the board that [taxpayers] want the board to do the hard work of prioritizing the very great amount of tax money they’re already dealing with,” she said.
There haven’t been any mosquito-related disease outbreaks in SLO County, particularly of West Nile virus. Since 2003, there have been two human cases of the virus in SLO County. That fact was likely a crucial blow in the assessment ballot.
County Clerk-Recorder Julie Rodewald said many of the comments that came with the “no” ballots tended to be along the lines of “I’m not giving the government one more cent,” for example, or “I’ve never seen a mosquito.”