Ballot mistakes add to road tax debate

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A “lack of communications” is how Kent County elections officials are describing a problem connected to the City of Grand Rapids’ May ballot question on continuing the 2010 income tax.

The conflict is over certification dates for ballot language, and whether state law applies to local elections.

Kent County Clerk Mary Hollinrake and Election Supervisor Sue deSteiguer confirmed the City of Grand Rapids did not include the main ballot question, which asks voters to extend the temporary income tax they approved in May of 2010 to fund road improvements, by a Feb. 27 deadline.

The city did send to the county language on a second question, which would amend the city charter to remove the ordinance requiring property owners to maintain the city sidewalks that line their property.

That amendment would go into effect if voters approve the tax extension.

The Grand Rapids City Clerk’s Office eventually sent the information to the county.

Hollinrake said after reviewing state election laws, her opinion is that the deadline only applies to state and federal ballot proposals.

“No harm, no foul,” said Hollinrake. Her interpretation of the law suggests local clerks, including Grand Rapids City Clerk Darlene O’Neal, can certify the ballot question on her own without involving the county clerk.

Hollinrake said state elections officials agreed with that interpretation.

But the group fighting the May ballot question isn’t convinced.

“It’s certainly a question right now as to whether this election would even be valid,” said Jason Miller, who heads the Grand Rapids Taxpayers Association.

His group is investigating the deadline issue.

At the very least, Miller said the issue shows the city is rushing the ballot question to take advantage of expected low-voter turnout in May.

“The timing does matter because, historically, there’s significantly higher turn out at the August election than a May special election. And we’d like to see more voters in the city vote on this,” says Miller.

Miller  said he thinks the May date should be scrapped.

“Given this uncertainty, it seems like there may be a challenge to it at some point,” he said. “Why should taxpayer money be spent to hold an election when these questions are out there? Our take of it is the city should cancel that May special election, move the issue to the August ballot and take the $80, 000 that they’d be spending on this May election and use it to fix some potholes.”

City officials have denied claims that moving the election to the August primary would be cheaper.

Citing costs like changes to software reflecting either the continuation of the current tax, or if voters say no, the reduction of that tax, city officials have said they’ll actually save money by holding the election in May.

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