Dec. 15, 2022
Leading up to the 2022 midterm election, Americans held highly negative views of the nation's economy. Many political strategists thought that would mean voters would be sensitive to state and local measures that propose increasing taxes.
That prevailing attitude compounds the already high-risk, high-reward proposition of asking voters to consider funding plan implementation of capital projects and services through bonds, levies, income taxes, and sales taxes.
When those measures pass, jurisdictions can dedicate millions of dollars over multiple years to specific purposes. However, when a ballot measure fails, it could be decades before those communities consider putting the proposal before voters again.
In November, some communities were big winners. Voters approved ballot measures in Salt Lake City, Utah; Beaufort County, South Carolina; Cleveland (Metroparks District), Ohio; Nassau County, Florida; Bellevue, Washington; and the state of New York.
These diverse places employed a similar strategy — one that other communities should take note of. They increased the chances of passing ballot measures by building on the community values and broad support that was developed through the community planning processes.
Collectively, these five jurisdictions increased their funding by $4.26 billion for projects that address climate change resilience, equity in public improvements for historically underinvested areas of the city, water resources infrastructure, parks, and greenways.
The processes used in developing municipal comprehensive plans and topical plans for parks, transportation, and environmental planning sometimes uncover community values and strong desires for costly improvements, even if they don't align with current government budgets. Leaders, however, can use that valuable input to position ballot measures that implement those shared priorities and do so with a sense of how likely voter support will be.
And, while election rules preclude governmental involvement in ballot measure advocacy, planning processes that precede ballot issues have the opportunity to educate the public and build support among community members who may become champions for the ballot initiative.
Election day success stories
Ballot measures provide an opportunity for once-in-a-generation funding to be made available for a particular cause or a permanent change to tax structures. In a medium-sized city, such measures commonly result in citizens approving funding in the range of eight to 10 figures.
Planners can use these examples when talking to local leaders to show potential return on investment of producing a community plan.
In Utah, Salt Lake City's Public Lands Master Plan named Reimagine Nature was developed with input from over 12,000 community members who prioritized 10 visionary projects for park equity, air and water quality, and resilient landscapes. Following unanimous plan adoption in early 2022, city leadership approved placing an $85 million bond issue on the ballot. The measure passed by a wide margin of nearly 70 percent of voters in November.
The Beaufort County Green Print Plan and Envision Beaufort County 2040 Comprehensive Plan, developed in tandem, make a case for managing rapid population growth in that South Carolina region and the alarming impacts of climate change and sea level rise. The county and its regional partners used data-driven mapping tools to identify priority conservation lands based on the public's conservation values. A key plan implementation strategy, aimed at achieving rapid green space conservation, required securing local funds to leverage federal funding. The measure passed, and Beaufort County is projected to raise $100 million in sales tax over two years.
In 2015, Cedar Park, Texas, adopted the Bell Boulevard Redevelopment Master Plan, which builds off a community visioning process providing an analysis of economic conditions, a framework for revitalization, and a financial impact assessment to improve the US 183 highway corridor. In 2016, voters approved three proposals amounting to $158.8 million for roadway infrastructure, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, city and emergency response facilities, and parks. Highway realignment has recently been completed, preparing the area for build out of the 40-acre Bell District as a destination.
5 tips for planners
Several sources, including The Nature Conservancy, National League of Cities, Brookings Institution, Bloomberg Analysists, and Trust for Public Land (TPL) LandVote, provide useful analysis of funding ballot measures, as well as insight about trends.
Collectively they conclude that voter support is at an all-time high for community amenities such as recreation opportunities, cultural activities, land and water conservation particularly related to climate resilience, and health and human services. This is encouragement for community and environmental planners to create bold vision plans.
Here are some lessons from places where community plans have contributed to ballot measure success.
1. Not just blank checks
The Urban Institute & Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center takeaways from the 2022 state ballot initiatives surmises that "voters were open to tax cuts and tax increases, but the details matter." Preparing a community plan provides an opportunity to test and develop the details that align with community values for spending.
2. Quantify benefits and needs
Master plan processes often include need assessments through citizen surveys and focused engagement with underrepresented populations, along with data research and analysis about impacts and economic benefits. These information resources were used for making a case in seeking voter extension of the Arapahoe County, Colorado Open Space Sales and Use Tax that passed in 2021 with 76.2 percent support.
3. A tangible vision
Planners and urban designers may craft visions with graphics that help people visualize and become excited about the potential outcomes. To demonstrate bond funding opportunities, ballot issue education reused graphic depictions of visionary ideas from Salt Lake City Public Lands Master Plan to great effect. A couple of the ideas for capital projects were made more actionable with conceptual design, community engagement, graphic perspective renderings, initial development strategies, and cost estimates. One of these projects is the Glendale Regional Park Master Plan that will make use of nearly a third ($27 million) of the newly approved $85 million bond funding to redevelop a brownfield site.
4. Transparent prioritization
Trust in government is built by providing clarity in planning documents and ballot measures, and helping voters understand the "why and how" about projects chosen for funding. When inclusive community engagement influences priorities it reduces skepticism about potential political favors. A good example comes from Minnesota, where the Essential Spaces Plan for Duluth communicates criteria and priority actions for parks and recreation that set the city up for a funding ballot measure. That measure failed by just 200 votes in 2022.
5. Think strategically about equity
A common assumption is that voter support for funding will be highest in political districts where improvements are being proposed or when a strategy of equal geographic distribution is offered. That may be changing as jurisdictions increasingly focus investment in areas of historic inequality.
For instance, two 2019 ballot issues supporting projects in the master plan for the South Suburban Parks and Recreation District in Colorado passed by an overwhelming 79.1 percent and 69.7 percent. However, voters in some of the underserved, low-income neighborhoods where new investment was planned didn't pass the 50 percent threshold. This suggests that voters in median and higher-income precincts are willing to pay for improvements that don't directly impact them because they recognize an important collective benefit of addressing historic inequities, public health, and environmental justice.
Jurisdictions are constantly strategizing about which efforts should be funded through ballot measures, as well as the sequence and number to propose. This requires assessing community priorities and values for diverse purposes, such as increased police and fire response services, repairing potholes, or developing school buildings. It also requires understanding what voters may deem worthy of a dedicated funding source in addition to their current taxes.