What Not to Do When Asking Voters to Increase Their Taxes

Voters in a wealthy suburb of St. Louis rejected tax increases to fund schools last week.
by | April 15, 2015
(Alan Greenblatt)

Schools are a point of pride in Webster Groves, a Missouri suburb about two miles west of St. Louis. Nevertheless, voters there decided last week that a pair of property tax increases meant to benefit the schools were too much.

The vote was fairly contentious locally, with residents posting angry claims and counter-claims regularly on social media.

Some schools are overcrowded, with kids taking classes in trailers. The district warned residents that unless they passed the taxes, the district would lay off teachers, increase class sizes and delay or stop infrastructure improvements.

But area voters had already approved four separate tax increases to support the schools over the previous decade. They decided that two more was too much. Both were defeated by about 57 to 43 percent.

This is a debate that had little resonance outside the city. Nevertheless, the failure to convince residents in an affluent area that they needed to spend more money to keep up the quality of the schools offers several lessons as to why local tax increases are often a tough sell.

1. Opposition Matters

It's easy to win support for schools. It's certainly not hard to get parents and teachers on board, which matters in a low turnout municipal election. There isn't always an organized opposition.

But there was in this case. Greg Mueller, a member of the Webster Groves City Council, set up a website laying out the case against the two propositions.

His argument was that spending was already on the rise and that problems of overcrowding had been exaggerated, since teacher-to-student ratios are well below the state average.

"We wanted the focus to be on how much we're already paying in taxes," Mueller said. "We support kids and teachers and our schools, but we think what they want to do can be done within their current budget."

He amplified that message through listservs and local media interviews.

"Having an organized 'no' campaign is usually the kiss of death," said David Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a Webster Groves resident. (Disclosure: I live in Webster Groves and have a child who attends public school.)

2. Don't Hand Your Opponents Weapons

One of the measures was designed to keep class sizes small and salaries for teachers relatively high. It would have increased property taxes by 65 cents per $100 of assessed value. The other would have paid for construction bonds and represented a 28-cent increase.

That increase of 93 cents adds up. Property values in Webster Groves are higher on average than in St. Louis County as a whole.

"The fact that passage would have made property taxes in Webster the highest in the county gave the 'no' side a simple and effective talking point," Kimball said.

3. Don't Ask for Too Much

Getting voters to agree to any tax increase is hard. Often, local officials will decide that if they have to make the ask, they might as well aim high, rather than having to come back in a year or two seeking more.

But some Webster Groves voters already felt tapped out. Houses in some neighborhoods go for more than $1 million. Most houses sell for considerably less than that, but people in the less plush parts of town who were most concerned about feeling squeezed.

"Almost everyone I talked to was concerned about whether they could afford it," said Gerry Welch, the mayor of Webster Groves. "They felt guilty -- 'I want to support the schools, but I can't do this.'"        

Gerry Welch, the mayor of Webster Groves, said the real issue is that hundreds of nonprofits are exempt from paying taxes. (Alan Greenblatt)

4. Wish Lists Are Asking for Trouble

Opponents convinced voters that the crowding situation was not dire and that teacher salaries, which on average are the third-highest in the county, were already sufficiently generous.

They were also able to plant seeds of doubt about the need for bigger budgets, thanks to the long list of items the district promised to fund.

Among their number was funding for all-day kindergarten, increased scholarships for pre-k for low-income kids, the renovation of a school currently used exclusively for sixth graders and a $6 million upgrade to athletic facilities.

"If there's a focused need, people will support it," Mueller said. "Their wish list, instead of building a coalition, ended up giving individual voters at least one reason, if not two, to vote against the measures."

Something similar happened in Atlanta in 2012, when a regional transportation referendum was defeated in part because many voters found individual items to dislike on the list of projects that was laid out for them.

5. Is It a Need to Have or a Nice to Have?

Sometimes, it's hard to convince voters of the need to spend money on improvements. People can understand the need to address problems when things are falling down, but they're not always willing to open their wallets to make a good situation better.

That was the case last fall in Wheat Ridge, Colo., a suburb of Denver, where voters rejected a pair of tax increases meant to improve transportation and create a downtown for the community.

In Webster Groves, the schools are in good shape, with students generally scoring well on standardized tests and more than 90 percent of high schoolers going on to college. In that environment, the district had a hard time convincing voters that more spending was necessary.

During the campaign, supporters of the school measures frequently pointed out that Webster Groves is primarily residential, lacking the commercial tax base enjoyed by some of its neighbors.

"We have some businesses here, but the real issue is you have hundreds and hundreds of acres that are off the tax rolls," Welch said, referring to the city's large number of nonprofits, including a university, senior housing complexes and children and family centers.

With little prospect of growing the tax base, both the city and its schools will face questions about the level of services they can afford to offer.

Talk of spending cuts and salary freezes dominated the school board meeting in Webster Groves on Monday. Superintendent Sarah Riss announced she will retire at the end of the next school year.

She said the decision was unrelated to the election results. But she handed the school board president a check for $4,000, which represented the amount her salary increased next year under her contract.