Voters have been selective for years now

A levy failure? On Bainbridge Island?

Well, grab the kids and head down to the root cellar.

The end is surely upon us!

That’s been the reaction in some circles since islanders voted down the fire district’s proposed 10 percent property tax hike last week. To hear some folks talk, the back-to-back failure of the fire and park levies this year heralds an apocalyptic shift in Bainbridge sensibilities, as though well-heeled islanders have previously embraced every tax hike put before them, and are just now waking up from a years-long orgy of self-indulgence.

While that may be the view to those living outside the community, cliches can be deceiving; Bainbridge voters have in fact been judicious with their tax money, as a review of the past decade-plus of levy elections demonstrates.

Since fall of 1992, more than one-third of the local levies

to go before island voters have failed to reach the requisite majority or supermajority – by our count, eight out of 23 have failed. That includes the first four attempts to build a new swimming pool (1993, twice in 1994, and again in 1996); two park maintenance and operations levies (2002, 2004); and one capital improvement bond to improve existing ball fields (1992). Among the successes were several special-purpose conservation levies, the Gazzam Lake purchase (1995) and the open space bond (2001). And, despite heel-dragging elsewhere in Kitsap, islanders have been willing supporters of essential services countywide, backing various tax measures for bus transit, emergency communications and a new jail.

We suspect the “Bainbridge ? Taxes” notion really stems from our community’s relentless support of public education; our school district is batting 1.000 since, mmm, forever, with operations, construction and special purpose levies over the past decade garnering anywhere from 60 to 78 percent.

The taxpayer support is there, but it is by no means

automatic. Nor has it been in the past, as anyone who has worked on a levy campaign will tell you.

Our brief look back prompts two more observations:

1) Island voters like their tax levies to be for specific purposes, and 2) having several levies on the same

ballot can bring out a strong “yes” vote.

One complaint about the recent fire levy is that its purpose was unclear. How much of the money was for general operations, and how much for new fire trucks? Who knew? That information was not apparent in the campaign. Contrast that with school funding propositions of years past. In February 1994, voters were asked to approve a regular M&O levy to keep the doors open, and a special-purpose capital levy to fund new school buses. Both passed easily. Two years later, in February 1996, the district floated two more levies – one for M&O, the other for specific, one-time technology purchases; the intent of each was clear, and again both were approved.

Also interesting is that, by accident or design, the park

district successfully piggy-backed its own M&O levies onto those same ballots, and did so again in February 1998. Far from “picking and choosing” between competing agencies,

voters each time said they did indeed want to fund their schools and their parks. (On the February 1994 ballot, voters almost passed a fourth tax measure as well, a pool bond.) By contrast, today’s officials drive up election costs by running single-item ballots – the park levy one month, the fire levy three months later. What kind of a community “yes” vote might have been rallied for a joint parks/fire levy election?

Then again, the fire levy does hold one distinction: Of the eight local levies to fail since 1992, it’s the only one we found that didn’t even muster 50 percent support. Not a ringing endorsement, by any standard.

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