TAKE THE INITIATIVE
February 26, 2013
By Scott Freitag
Call me a busybody but after each election I actually look forward to browsing the results of ballot initiatives involving 9-1-1 services and talking to public safety officials I heard were going to voters to approve local projects.
In many ways, these results are more fascinating than the returns for the political parties—particularly those for national office—because they offer greater insight into the issues facing a certain demographic spread. They are a form of direct democracy; the process gives citizens the power to place measures on state and local ballots for a public vote. Consequently, the returns pinpoint concerns and show the length residents are willing to go or not go in achieving the goals they believe best for their community and state.
I also find returns useful for business and professional reasons. Collectively, results indicate wider trends: the direction the country is going in terms of meeting the demands of 9-1-1 imposed by technology and public expectations and the ways in which the initiatives will be financed, if approved. On the local level, we can get a handle on projects neighboring jurisdictions found important enough to put to the voters and gauge, by voter response, the possibility of succeeding with a similar—albeit customized—plan among our own taxpayers.
As far as the numbers go for this past year’s ballot initiatives, voters in 38 states considered 172 statewide measures on Nov. 6 (42 were citizen initiatives and 12 were popular referenda), of which 42% were voter approved. While emergency communications might be a priority for us, the issue did not make it among the top trends noted during the 2012 election. The popular issues included education (and funding through tax increases), drug policy, marriage, healthcare, and animal rights. This is not an easy year to monitor trends in public service.
Although not all initiatives are successful, monitoring them does tell me a lot about the perspective and priorities of a community and the shape 9-1-1 services are taking across the country. After all, rapid changes in telecommunication technologies pose sig- nificant policy and funding challenges for public service agencies and state lawmakers. Broadband, enhanced 9-1-1, Next Generation 9-1-1, wireless communications, and the equipment and training required are not optional for a 9-1-1 system that keeps pace with its citizenry.
For the most part, emergency communication initiatives appearing on ballots this past year considered technology: phone surcharge increases to make up for losses in 9-1-1 services now that the number of cell phone users is far surpassing the number of landlines in homes, and increased tax assessments to fund narrowbanding requirements and other 9-1-1 mandates.
While I don’t consider two initiatives a “trend,” voters in two counties in Michigan approved increases in tax assessments to fund enhanced 9-1-1.
Antrim County (Mich.) went to voters on a combined appeal and won the levy for a tax assessment of up to one-half of one mil for six years. A half of one mil translates to 50 cents for each $1,000 of assessed valuation and will make up for budget shortfalls resulting from a state mandate in 2007 to decrease the phone surcharges; the 9-1-1 emergency telephone and dispatch system was also losing revenue to cell phone users paying the surcharge to the county where the owner claims residence, without benefit in case of an emergency involving 9-1-1 in Antrim County. Upstate Antrim County is a vacation cabin get-away spot for downstate residents.
The shortfall was projected to increase in 2013—if the levy failed to pass—because of necessary equipment upgrades needed to conform to state-mandated narrowbanding requirements. A mid-term ballot initiative in Eaton County (Mich.) won voter approval—by almost a two to one margin—for renewing the current 9-1-1 emergency levy and increase it by a rate of 95 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation for the next five years to continue funding for the county’s Enhanced 9-1-1 Emergency Telephone and Central Dispatch System.
Deschutes County (Ore.) 9-1-1 wasn’t so lucky, and by a relatively slim margin. An initiative to create a 9-1-1 emergency district in the county with a levy at a permanent cap of 39 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation was defeated by about 1,500 votes of the 29,500 votes cast. The funding would have supplemented a grant already secured for a new building and equipment and, in the long haul, prepare the county for NG9-1-1 technology.
The results were not what Deschutes County communications was looking for, of course. But that doesn’t mean they plan to give up.
Ballot initiatives give citizens the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process and, because of that, I consider initiatives at the cutting edge of political participation. They can have huge consequences. And, win or lose, at least a defeated initiative forces the public and legislators to think about it.