Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 18, 2013

Editorial: NMC must first learn how to talk to voters

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — In the follow-up to the decisive Aug. 6 defeat of Northwestern Michigan College’s millage request, NMC officials have been as short on specifics as they were before the election.

And as lots of other taxing entities have found out over the years, being short on specifics is no way to convince savvy voters there is a compelling need for more money, that it’s going to be spent wisely and there will be tangible results.

College leaders have said they were following attorney advice that being too specific about what the college wanted to do with the money would somehow violate state law. Why that would be was unclear then and is just as unclear now.

What’s obvious, however, is that NMC’s failure to articulate a compelling need for an additional $30 million over 15 years had a lot to do with the demise of the ballot issue.

Demise may be too tame a word. Voters didn’t just say “no.” They said “NO.” A robust 66.9 percent of those who voted (7,855 to 3,901) rejected the request. It’s hard to say that was a mandate, since turnout was a measly 16.8 percent of registered voters.

But NMC officials chose an August election. In fact, trustees said they wanted the college’s request to stand out from other millage issues coming in November and beat them to the punch.

An August election cost taxpayers $68,000; balloting in November wouldn’t have cost anything extra. Some voters didn’t appreciate that extra cost, or that the college wrongly claimed an August election was necessary to get new taxes on the winter tax rolls. Turns out that could have happened with a November election, too, something NMC President Tim Nelson knew but forgot to tell the board.

In the end, though, it was the near-total lack of details that mattered most.

After the voting, NMC board president Doug Bishop said the defeat “will slow down some of our technology acquisitions and ... make it more difficult to recruit talent to our specialty programs ...”

What technology “acquisitions?” What “specialty programs?” Voters want to know, and to understand, details.

Nelson said he hadn’t been specific about how the money would be used in the run-up to the election; but after the voting he said money would have been for “ ... operations, investment in technology, investment in people ... investment in the design of new programs.” What technology? What people? What new programs?

A few voters said they were concerned about taxes in general. But on the same day voters rejected the NMC request, voters in Green Lake Township and Forest Area Community Schools approved tax issues.

Jim Raphael, a local retiree who in his professional life raised funds for Stanford University and some California nonprofits, was critical of the millage campaign.

He said it was imperative for NMC to articulate its need for more money and argued that the additional $1.7 million the millage would have generated in the first year alone would have exceeded all recent economic downturn-related losses in property tax revenues.

“I don’t know about the state law, but I just think it’s very strange to run a campaign and not at least give the voters some indication of how the college would spend $30 million over the next 15 years,” he said. “This was the most poorly articulated set of needs and poorly run campaign that I’ve seen in a long, long time. There wasn’t any ‘there’ there.”

Obviously, NMC and voters are on different pages. Before NMC tries again, the board must better communicate its need and its plans.

Traverse City Area Public Schools, which saw a $100 million issue get trashed in November, has gone out of its way to find out why voters said no and to explain why the district needs the money.

Officials have held listening sessions and board members have talked to individual groups to explain the two issues TCAPS will have on the November ballot.

NMC must do a lot better. The college doesn’t televise its board meetings (or keep video or audio records) and traditionally, NMC expends little effort to reach out to the public. That caught up with them Aug. 6.

The best way to ensure voters understand what’s being asked of them and for the college to hear voters’ concerns is for NMC to reach out, educate and listen.

But that means people-to-people contact, which is not this board’s strong suit.