Friday, May 27, 2005

Bellevue levy election loss surprises city

Officials condemn erroneous handout against levy hike

Express Staff Writer

A majority of Bellevue voters who turned out for a special election Tuesday, May 24, opposed a proposal to help fund Bellevue's municipal services. The defeat of the proposal surprised city officials, who had called the election in response to a mandate from citizens. The special election asked voters to increase the city's fiscal budget by $300,000 to boost city services—such as the police, fire and street departments—by increasing the city's property tax rate.

"We called the special election because the citizens of Bellevue requested it," Councilwoman Tammy Eaton said. "Ironically enough, we thought the message was being delivered to us."

Instead, a conflicting message was circulated throughout the city days prior to the special election to consider an increase in the city's levy rate. An anonymous flier entitled "Bellevue Property Owners—You're about to get hosed again! You can prevent it!" was distributed to residents and businesses.

"I was more than upset. (The flier) more than cost us the election," Councilwoman Joanna Ehrmantraut said.

The final results of the election were 121 voters, or 37 percent, in favor of the proposed levy increase, to 207, or 63 percent of voters, against the proposed increase. The final count recorded 328 ballots cast of the city's 994 registered voters.

"I was surprised by the numbers it was defeated," Mayor Jon Anderson said.

If the levy had been approved, it would have increased the yearly tax bill of a $100,000 property owner from $99.35 to $179.50.

The results on Tuesday contrast to a similar measure put before voters last year that failed to pass by only a narrow margin. In 2004, the final vote was 204 voters, or 56 percent in favor, to 161, or 44 percent of voters, against the levy increase. With the city needing 60 percent voter approval for the measure to pass, the measure fell short by a mere 4 percentage points.

The flier attacks the Bellevue Marshal's Department, Fire Department, city manager, City Council and the mayor.

"I was really disappointed in the language of the letter. There were a lot of misrepresentations in that letter," Councilman Shaun Mahoney said.

Bellevue Marshal Randy Tremble said the flier inflated his salary by $4,000. He also objected to a claim that "90 percent of (the department's officers) last less than two years and then move on to other jobs."

"It was underhanded politicking. It was dirty. I would have expected better," Tremble said.

The letter also stated the department's base employee salary is $50,000 to $60,000. In fact, the highest annual salary is that of the marshal, at $52,000 a year. The city's pay scale ranges from $13.00 to $25.38 per hour with benefits.

The letter also stated that city employees receive a $200 insurance deductible. According to City Clerk Dee Barton, employees pay a $300 deductible.

City officials expressed disappointment that the false statements could not be addressed, because the letter remained unsigned.

"How are we as a city supposed to respond if we don't know who he or she is?" Councilman Chris Koch said.

The identity of the author remained under speculation Thursday.

"I called (Blaine County Commissioner) Dennis Wright to see if he wrote it and he said he did write it," Planning and Zoning Commissioner Eric Allen said.

Wright, who represents Bellevue and southern Blaine County, is a former mayor of Bellevue. He did not return phone calls from the Mountain Express.

"I appreciate the people who were not in support," Eaton said. "I would appreciate it more if they could participate and help work together to define solutions they think would work."

The election was held in response to citizen consensus expressed at a community forum in March. Residents signaled support after concerns arose about consolidating and contracting city services. Until the forum, the council had not indicated whether they would pursue the levy rate increase.

The election in part reflected the council's ongoing struggle to provide financial support of city services. Bellevue currently operates with an approximately $238,000 general fund budget. The total city budget is approximately $853,000.

This year, the cash-strapped City Council was forced to balance the budget by cutting street and administrative funds and draw from savings to hire a full-time fire chief.

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