Jackson restricts some referendums to high-turnout elections

The Jackson County Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution Sept. 18 that will limit referendum votes on sales tax increases and bonds to elections when turnout is highest.

From now on, the resolution states, referendums on local tax increases and bonds can take place only during the November elections of even-numbered years. That’s because between 2008 and 2016, Jackson County voter turnout on these elections has averaged 55 percent. Meanwhile, the average turnout in even-year second primaries during the same period has averaged only 4 percent.

“I think it supports better access for folks to have a say,” said Commissioner Ron Mau, who has been pushing for such a resolution ever since his election to the board in November 2016.

During the months leading up to the 2016 election, Mau had taken issue with the decision of the commissioners then sitting on the board to include a referendum question about whether to raise sales taxes by one-fourth of a cent on the ballot for the second primary in June. He’d cited voter turnout statistics to the board, arguing that the county would get a better understanding of what citizens wanted if it delayed the vote until November.

Chairman Brian McMahan, however, had said at the time that asking the question in June would allow for more thorough voter education and discussion on the issue, as the November ballot would be crowded with pages of races ranging from county commissioners to state judges to the U.S. president. In addition, deciding the issue earlier would allow funds from the increased sales tax — which the county wanted to earmark for capital projects at Southwestern Community College and Jackson County Schools — to begin accumulating earlier.

The June 2016 referendum ultimately passed with 63.5 percent in favor and an 11.1 percent voter turnout. When commissioners voted on the Sept. 18 resolution, however, all five were in favor of its passage.

The new rules could get a test run sooner rather than later. Recently, commissioners have been discussing a referendum vote on a bond to fund an indoor swimming pool. Citizens have consistently put an indoor pool at the top of their wish list for the county, with a 2013 survey done as part of the Jackson County Parks and Recreation Master Plan showing that 70 percent of 763 respondents said they’d be willing to support funding for a centrally located indoor swimming pool.

But the devil’s in the details, and a question just as big as whether the community wants a pool is how much that pool would cost to build and maintain. During a Sept. 11 work session, commissioners discussed what the timeline might look like, were they to decide to put the question out for referendum. According to draft meeting minutes, County Manager Don Adams said the process of getting the question on the ballot would take three or four months, and it would take an additional three to six months to pin down estimated project costs if the pool were planned as an addition to the Cullowhee Recreation Center. That timeline could change if the pool were planned as a standalone facility.

Commissioners aren’t necessarily in agreement that the county should build an indoor pool, or that it’s a project that should happen within the next five years. But they are talking seriously about getting the question on the ballot. Such a question, McMahan said according to draft meeting minutes, would allow commissioners to gauge public support for the project and, if it passed, give them the option to go about financing it. A successful referendum vote wouldn’t require commissioners to fund the pool, however.

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