Ballots were few and far between this week. But those voters who had one to cast — and did so — sent a strong message that they want change in how their tax dollars are spent, particularly related to retirement benefits for public employees. At the same time, they're still willing to increase their taxes to help cities, schools and other special districts fill gaping holes in their budgets.
Despite lingering questions about the economy, Mendocino County residents, for example, overwhelmingly supported a tax measure to support the county's library systems. Measure A, a one-eighth of a cent tax to restore library services that have been drastically cut over the past five years, passed by a more than 3-1 margin.
Similarly, bond and tax measures in a number of communities around the Bay Area got a favorable response from those who went to the polls.
San Francisco voters approved a half-cent sales tax for 10 years that will go toward public safety programs and programs for children and seniors. Voters there also approved a school bond measure.
Tax measures, school bond measures and parcel tax increases were approved in Fairfax, Brisbane, Newark, Burlingame and a host of other cities. One of the few to lose was a San Mateo County Community College District Bond Measure that attempted to raise $564 million for upgrades to the district three college campuses. The measure was supported by nearly 53 percent of the voters but needed 55 percent to pass.
Meanwhile, voters from San Francisco to Palo Alto to Modesto overwhelmingly supported charter amendments and other measures calling for reforming of pension systems for public employees.
In labor-friendly San Francisco, voters, by a 2-1 margin, approved Proposition C, which will make a series of changes, including raising the minimum retirement age for some employees and increasing contribution rates for others. Overall, the plan is expected to save the $1.3 billion over the next decade for San Francisco, which faces a $4 billion shortfall in its retirement obligations.
Palo Alto voters, also by a 2-1 margin, agreed to rescind a requirement that any impasse in negotiations between the city and public safety go to binding arbitration. Many have argued that the all-or-nothing process has helped drive up the cost of benefits, requiring a big percentage of general funds to be devoted to police and fire departments.
The Santa Rosa Charter Review Committee is already discussing whether local voters should consider a similar ballot measure next year.
Meanwhile, in Modesto, voters supported three advisory measures that asked whether the city's pension system should be reformed. The nonbiding measures asked about raising retirement age, stopping spiking and replacing defined-benefit pensions with a 401(k)-type plan. All three passed with 58 percent of the vote or more.
The results this week challenge conventional wisdom, which suggests that voters in low-turnout elections tend to be conservative — and voters won't approve tax and bond measures in a down economy.
By contrast, the voters appear to recognize the dire straits facing public agencies and indicated they were willing to lend a hand. But elected officials to use the money they have more wisely. It may bode well for a number of revenue-raising and pension-related measures that are expected to go before statewide voters next fall.
But, as we've seen before, the mood of voters can change quickly.