‘Cost of Community’ seeks to gauge interest in future bond measures

Nicole Likarish

When a $54 million school bond failed last year with an exceptionally low 40 percent voter approval, editors at the Union-Bulletin began to wonder what about bond proposals might be turning the public off and what community needs voters are eager, or at least willing, to meet. Employing public officials, business leaders, social workers and school administrators to catalog the city’s needs into a sort of civic wish list, the editors launched a survey project called The Cost of Community. The survey invited readers to rank five of the potential proposals they’d like to see enacted within the next 20 years. The hope is to both gauge interest in and increase awareness of future bond measures.

The list includes 37 projects ranging from a new police dispatch station to an aquatic center with estimated costs that vary as widely as the projects themselves, from a $10 million ice rink to the $200,000 restoration of the City Hall’s exterior. The survey ended Monday at 5 p.m. and articles in the Union-Bulletin will reveal trends of responses beginning on the Oct. 7.

As of last Friday the editors had already received 1,000 responses. Community writer Alisdair Stewart was already stunned last Friday by the 1,000 responses, over 40 percent of which were hand written.

“We’re blown away, we didn’t anticipate this level of response. The enthusiasm of the readership has really become a point of civic pride for me,” said Stewart. He also marveled that the survey evoked such passionate responses from people who went so far as to rank all 37 and include specific stipulations and alterations to their favorite projects.

Hoping to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the numerous psychological reasons for the failure or success of a bond measure, the Union-Bulletin staff has also included on the list certain bonds that have failed repeatedly in the past. As for the disapproval of last year’s school bond, editor Terry McConn cited its heavy price tag and its elaborate vision of projects including the controversial reconstruction of Walla Walla High School. Efforts are being made to shrink the bill’s costs by presenting the school projects individually over coming years. “These bonds are dependent on a myriad of variables, especially timing,” said McConn.

By timing, he means the climate of currently rising property taxes and the projection for even higher property values in coming years.

These concerns cause some voters to reject bonds outright and, sensing this, bond backers are trying to find new ways to seduce the skeptics with public outreach and a race to the ballot before overtaxed voters get exasperated and no bond measure stands a chance. McConn pointed to the problem of bond proposal’s frequent shortsightedness. With this rush to push certain measures forward, voters are not always afforded a comprehensive view of what projects could potentially come down the line. Like McConn said, “it’s all coming from the same wallets,” so focus should not be limited to immediate issues that do make the ballot. With contextualized projects the bond backer’s incentive is for more aggressive advertisement and education.

The Union-Bulletin survey hopes to alleviate voter confusion and anxiety, providing what Stewart called an “actionable intelligence,” which will equip the voter with a “higher sense of competency in talking about these projects, a greater fluency of understanding.” Stewart is enthusiastic about the paper’s role in mediating this early conversation and developing public awareness. “To me, this is what you want in an electorate,” Stewart said.

To the skeptics who’ve mailed responses claiming that civic planners aren’t going to compromise with the ‘little guy,’ McConn said, “Maybe not, but they might just have to grapple with 1,000 little guys,” especially when those little guys are picking up the bill.