TRAVERSE CITY — Statistics help tell the story of Northwestern Michigan College’s failed millage election.
Two voters in the August election were 102 years old. Conversely, only five 18-year-olds bothered to vote.
Those who arguably had the most to gain from the increased millage showed up in the smallest numbers. Sixty-five people ages 18-21 cast ballots fewer than those ages 94 and up (67) and less than 1 percent of total votes cast (11,756).
And nearly all the absentee ballots 94.5 percent were cast by people who were 60 and older.
The statistics were drawn from a report presented to the NMC board trustees by fellow board member Ross Childs, who obtained a voter age breakdown in the Aug. 6 special election that voters crushed by a two-to-one margin. The college sought a .4-mill, 15-year property tax hike to support operations.
Political consultant Mark Grebner said NMC board members “shot themselves in the foot” by choosing a special election date. That’s because absentee ballots tend to dominate overall votes in special elections and are typically cast by older voters who are more likely to oppose property tax increases.
“Certainly, the results of this one changed my mind a bit in terms of the timing,” said Doug Bishop, NMC board chairman. “We thought we could get the vote out, and we didn’t. I think probably the ‘no’ votes were in the area of what they would be, but we thought we could offset it with our campaign to get the 'yes' votes out.”
NMC board member Bill Myers agreed.
"I think more turnout will help us, if we communicate what we’re doing for the community," he said.
The board plans to discuss its next request in the spring, but it's too early to say when it will be, Bishop said.
“The need certainly continues, and we just have to look at when,” Bishop said.
NMC President Tim Nelson said the board stood by its decision to hold a $68,000 special election instead of a November election that wouldn't have cost the college anything. That's because college officials wanted to avoid confusion with Traverse City Area Public Schools' millage requests, both of which went down.
“Let’s say it had been in November and TCAPS lost. Would we have been accused of splitting the vote?” he said.
Nelson said voter apathy isn't confined to young adults. Close to 90 percent of the 11,756 votes were cast by people over the age of 51.
“If you look at the patterns, more come out in national elections than local," he said. "But if you stop and think about it, local elections have more of an immediate effect on people's lives. They take effect right now."
To bolster voter turnout, the board is seeking to increase public awareness of how NMC adds value to the community and its financial challenges. Its outreach campaign includes campus tours, board member appearances at service club meetings, advertising, and community conversations with various groups.
Statistics reflect there was more at play in the election than voter apathy. Absentee voters cast a 39 percent favorable vote. Those "yes" votes declined to 28 percent on polling day. By then the $68,000 cost of the special election was on the public radar. A Record-Eagle article reported the earlier election date wasn't necessary to collect the higher property tax rate in 2013, a reason cited by board members. Nelson knew of that fact, but didn't announce it to them.
“It was a mistake to not tell them, but I didn’t intentionally mislead anyone,” Nelson said. “I have admitted that and took responsibility for it.”
Voters also expressed a number of concerns. Some wanted to see how rising property values would affect the college's revenues before approving an increase. NMC's reserve fund balance stood at $16.1 million on June 30, 2012, nearly 38.9 percent of the college's $41.3 million operating budget.
Nelson said that even as property values go up, the Headlee Amendment will limit tax increases to the inflation rate until properties are sold. State funding has remained fairly stagnant, yet NMC has to pay 26 cents into the state retirement system for every dollar of salary paid, more than twice the rate of a decade ago.
One of the biggest voter concerns was lack of specificity of how the new revenues would be used. Board members received legal advice that they not make promises or threats or risk violation of state law.
"I didn’t want to make a statement, 'If you don’t pass this I’m going to raise tuition,'" Nelson said. "But does the operating millage have an impact on our tuition rates? Yes. Does it impact how we take care of our facilities? Yes. Does it impact how much we pay and how many we hire and the programs we can develop? Yes it does. I’ve said those things before, but if somebody wants to know precisely, I can’t tell them precisely."