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Bond Issues: Strategies for Success at the Polls; Feature Article, spring 2006 “The Resource” newsletter for clients and friends of Alliance Water Resources

Are you considering a bond issue for voter approval?
Alliance takes a look at two communities with recent success at the polls; including best practices, tips and hindsight lessons learned from both a city and water district.

After the hard work leading up to a bond issue recommendation is done, community leaders still have to convert their own enthusiasm into action by the voters. And whatever the issue, community leaders are likely to become invested far earlier and on a deeper level than the citizens who will eventually decide its fate at election.

Know Your Audience
When it comes to getting the word out, it\'s unanimous: the number-one goal for community leaders should be to inform, not persuade. In the words of Ralls County, Mo. Public Water Supply District #1 Board President Keith Deaver, “Give all the information up front, any way you can.” But be careful of semantics: Fulton officials who used the word “educate” in conversation with residents were told that word is insulting. After that, they made sure to “inform,” not educate.

At Ralls PWSD #1, customers of the district recently voted to increase the bonding limit, giving the District the go-ahead for a 3-phase capital improvement plan over the next five years. PWSD #1 will rebuild failing infrastructure and significantly improve a water leak issue the District has been fighting for years.

Officials at The City of Fulton, Mo., are enjoying a turn-around at the polls; a sales tax extension recently passed that was voted down one year before. Water system improvements paid for by the new extension are now making visible progress as citizens track the construction of two new water towers.

Both communities created grass-roots momentum by targeting specific groups and citizens to spread the word to their peers.

In Fulton, this came in the form of more than 25 targeted presentations to civic and political groups. Presentations were assisted by a detail-packed PowerPoint complete with mapped plans for each area of the city. Also included were specific costs and alternatives considered for the project. A question-and-answer period after each presentation gave each group a chance to address their particular concerns.

Ralls County water district leaders also addressed concerns with face-to-face interaction. They organized an open house at the water district office and had support materials at the ready to aid in the conversation. While the turnout was smaller than expected, the board believes there is value in the process. Citizens who are the most troubled by the bond prospect do show up. And this small group is vocal by definition, and therefore likely to share their open-house experience with many.

Key Components
Despite the differences between cities and districts, key practices came to the surface that worked to the advantage of both.

Use what\'s already working in favor of your goal.
– Even before the issue was officially on the table, Fulton employees in all areas were being questioned about the bond issue. The City used this to its advantage by holding a special information session for all city employees. This first presentation, put on by Alliance Local Manager Rob Hamlin, served as both a dry run for the citizen presentations and to involve and motivate City employees.
– The Ralls district bond issue came on the tail of a highly-publicized negotiation with the City of Hannibal. It was commonly known that the district had come into a significant amount of money and members of the media questioned how the district would use the funds. Alliance Local Manager Jon Rogers and members of the board looked at every media interview as an opportunity to turn the negative speculation into positive motivation for the bond issue.

Traditional methods still work.
– Press releases and media interviews are opportunities. No matter the original topic, successful writers and interviewees find a way to relate their goals to the subject at hand. Questions about odor control problems can easily lead to a discussion of the current state of the treatment system—and improvements that will result when a bond issue is passed.
– Bill stuffers, newspaper ads, flyers on cars and public bulletin boards are all classic tactics that add up. (Note: be aware of what is an appropriate expense for government funds. In Fulton, a private group used their own money for flyers and ads.)

For most, it\'s about personal impact.
– By far, most opposition to bond issues is motivated by a blind resistance to higher rates or raised taxes. Giving the facts straight-up seems to be the cure. In Fulton, this meant making sure each presentation bluntly stated that citizens had the option to either extend the sales tax or raise water rates. For Ralls leaders, the key message was that bonding capacity doesn\'t necessarily result in a raise in rates.
– Some people just want to be in the know (and first to know). Fulton city officials used this to their advantage by seeking out “squeaky wheel” citizens that had complained about the water system in the past. By taking time to personally discuss how the bond issue will answer their concerns, would-be antagonists became vocal collaborators.
– Sometimes the noise of hostility is not from actual voters. Fulton officials found that much of the opposition to a sales tax extension was from non-voting parties that objected to a tax with no perceived personal benefit.

Speaking from Experience
Timing is everything. Having a plan is fundamental. And working together with the right people can be a foundation for success. These are the lessons learned from experience by leaders in both communities.

Concentrating efforts on the planning side pays off in an efficient and effective information campaign. Fulton officials started planning the second try for their bond issue almost immediately after the first try failed. “We did very little education the first time,” says Fulton City Administrator Bill Johnson, “The second time, we provided a lot more information and [the issue] passed with more than 90 percent approval.”

To make sure their program would hit the mark, Fulton officials recruited a citizen\'s group for a two-fold purpose: to act as a private promotional group (pooling about $1,000 in private funds for promotions and personally speaking out in favor of the bond), and to serve as a sounding board in developing the citizen presentations.

Pay it Forward
There will almost always be a next time when it comes to bond issues. Both communities made a plan to capitalize on their current efforts by priming citizens for the next time. They did this by emphasizing as much as possible that infrastructure improvements are an ongoing process. “To live, work and run a city is expensive,” Johnson told audiences, “Don\'t be surprised when we ask you to consider another [sales tax] extension after this one.”

What these communities have learned is echoed in research by experts in government matters, marketing and community persuasion (see “for more information” below).

Translating a bond issue proposal from personal enthusiasm to success at the polls is indeed a challenge. Questions to consider are: who are the different groups you need to address, what are their primary needs, concerns or roadblocks and how best to answer those particular sentiments. A bond issue campaign built on information over persuasion will not only boost results for the issue at hand, but also lay the groundwork for progress in the future.

Alliance Water Resources would like to thank City of Fulton City Administrator Bill Johnson, Fulton Assistant City Administrator Patrick Bonnot, and Ralls County PWSD #1 Board President Keith Deaver for their assistance with this article.

For More Information
Much information exists about the end-user buying and selling of bonds on the market, but help getting that bond passed is more difficult to find. Here are a few sources for further information on the subject.
– Malcom Gladwell\'s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Published by Time Warner Book Group, 2000. A great read for insights on group influence.
– The Community Readiness Model. Developed by the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University, this model features clearly defined stages to gauge the readiness of your own community. Includes strategies and goals for moving through each stage. http://www.triethniccenter.colostate.edu
-“Talking With Citizens About Money.” 1997. The International City/County Management Association.. A nine-page booklet “discusses how to involve citizens in responsible decision making on financial matters.”