National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Colo. voters lukewarm to secession; tax measures get mixed results

By Charles Taylor

Voters in counties across the nation decided the likely fate of an iconic stadium in Texas, largely rejected the notion of several Colorado counties’ seceding from the state and, in Florida, approved nearly a billion dollars in bonds to modernize a county public hospital.

Of the hundreds of local issues decided on Nov. 5, the ones attracting the most national attention were a 51st state advisory referendum in 11 Colorado counties and a plan to save Harris County, Texas’ Astrodome stadium.

In Colorado, voters in five of the counties approved the non-binding question to secede. Majorities backed it in Cheyenne, Kit Carson, Phillips, Yuma and Washington counties — all in northeastern Colorado — by winning margins that ranged from 54 percent to 62 percent. But the measure failed in the largest county where it was on the ballot, Weld County (pop. 253,000) by 56 percent to 44 percent. The counties where voters favored creating a new state range in population from 1,800 to 10,000 residents.

Secession was always a “high hill to climb,” according to Chip Taylor, executive director of Colorado Counties, Inc. (CCI), because it would require state and congressional approval. “I think the real earnest effort was to send a message to Denver and maybe there’s another way to send that same message,” he said.

Phillips County, where 62 percent of voters favored secession, has an idea. The county has asked CCI to seek legislation to change the composition of the General Assembly to give rural counties representation not based solely on population, which would require amending the state’s constitution. Of the Legislature’s 65 House members, 12 represent rural counties, and six of 35 senators are from rural districts.

“We just don’t have a voice; we’re run over,” Phillips County Administrator Randy Schafer said. He’d like to see a State Legislature that’s more like the U.S. Congress in terms of representation: where one chamber, the Senate, has equal representation from each state.

SpeedReadvoters.jpg“Raising the (secession) issue was not only worth it, but we’ll continue to pursue the change so we do get a voice,” he said.

In Harris County, Texas, a $217 million bond measure to renovate the derelict Astrodome failed by an unofficial tally of 53 percent to 47 percent. While demolition remains an option, local efforts continue to seek a historic designation for the structure.

Before the election, Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times’ architecture critic, wrote, “There may be no piece of architecture more quintessentially American than the Astrodome.” The city of Houston’s archaeological and Historical Commission is considering declaring the stadium a historic landmark.

Elsewhere across the nation, voters in counties large and small weighed in favorably on issues related to hospitals and health care.

Voters in Miami-Dade County (pop. 2.5 million) okayed raising taxes to fund hospital improvements by approving $830 million in bonds for the “modernization, improvement and equipping of Jackson Health System’s facilities located throughout the county, including … emergency rooms, children’s ambulatory pavilion and urgent care centers,” according to the ballot language. It passed by 65 percent to 35 percent. While the measure passed, some opponents remained concerned that the measure lacked specifics on oversight of the funds.

Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, a strong backer of the measure, sought to allay those fears. “The next step is to convene a citizen’s oversight board to keep a watchful eye on how the bond money is spent, and I promise the people that this will be done,” she said.

In Curry County, Ore. (pop. 22,300), voters approved a $10 million, 30-year general obligation bond that would increase property taxes by 74 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to build a new hospital to replace an aging one in Gold Beach, the county seat, and expand other health care services in the county. The margin of passage was 66 percent to 34 percent.

A proposed tax increase for law enforcement services didn’t fare as well. Curry, like many timber-dependent counties in Oregon, faces uncertain finances because of cuts to federal timber payments (Congress has approved the payments for one more year, and timber counties are seeking a long-term solution). Voters rejected a measure that would have raised the current county tax of 60 cents per $1,000 to approximately $1.34 per $1,000. Despite its failure, homeowners might still end up paying higher taxes. Under a state law passed earlier this year, the governor — with county commissioners’ approval — can impose taxes to maintain essential public safety services in budget-constrained counties.

In the U.S. heartland, Jackson County, Mo. voters rejected a half-cent sales tax hike that would have raised $800 million over 20 years to fund a new medical research institute. The proceeds were intended to fund so-called “translational” research into developing profitable new drugs and discovering cures for diseases. It lost by a more than five-to-one margin — 84 percent to 16 percent.

Proponents of the measure estimated that in its first 10 years, it would create more than 200 jobs in the Kansas City area with an economic impact of $607 million, according to published reports. They also projected that Jackson County government would receive 20 percent of profits from the commercialization of new drugs, devices or treatments the institute might produce.