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Plain language needed for ballot proposals

• Oct 15, 2018 at 12:00 PM

There is a statewide proposition on next month’s elections ballot that, basically, aims to make it easier for Michigan citizens to be able to vote.

Perhaps there also needs to be some constitutional amendment that requires ballot proposals to be written so the average voter can more easily understand what he or she is voting for, or against.

Take, for instance, the Ottawa County “tax limitation” proposal on the Nov. 6 ballot. We find it hard to understand, and not sure what a “yes” or “no” vote would do to your property tax bill.

Would voting yes for a tax limitation mean your taxes would be limited? Yes and no.

The proposition has a relatively short 54-word explanation, followed by some kind of math. But what exactly does it add up to?

Here’s the language: “Shall separate tax limitations be established for a period of ten (10) years, beginning in the 2019 tax year and ending at the end of the 2028 tax year, for the County of Ottawa (comma needed here, folks!) the townships and intermediate School District within the Ottawa County, the aggregate of which shall not exceed 5.613 mills as follows.” Then there is that math stuff.

From what we’ve been told (and we asked the county administrator to explain it), it has something to do with the Headlee Amendment.

You remember the Headlee Amendment? Here’s a refresher: Voters approved this amendment to the Michigan Constitution in 1978. It requires voter approval for any local tax increases or new taxes, limits property tax revenue resulting from property tax assessment increasing, and limits revenue collected to the amount the millage originally was to generate (factoring in inflation).

So what does a yes vote for the “tax limitation” proposal do? From what we can figure, it would actually “separate” some of the levies on your property tax bill so that those entities — the county, the intermediate school district and the township where you live or own property (unless your bill is for city property) — can raise their individual levies, as long as the total does not exceed 5.613 mills.

If you vote no, the Headlee rollback would be maintained. It’s at 5.3506 mills.

So, if we understand it correctly (and, to be honest, we’re not 100 percent certain that we do), voting yes would allow the county to raise your taxes without seeking your OK. It may be only a little bit more, but it would nonetheless be possible to hike them.

Why can’t they say that? Something like, “This proposal would allow us to raise your taxes a little bit without your OK. Is that OK with you? Yes or no?”

It probably has something to do with legalities. And, as you probably know, anytime you get lawyers involved, plain language goes out the window.

To the contrary, the three state proposals and the other county proposal (they’re asking to raise your taxes by 0.9 mill for the intermediate school district to distribute the extra revenue from it to local school districts for whatever they deem necessary) are written in a way that we think the average voter can understand.

In any case, we hope you vote Nov. 6. And we hope you understand what (and who) you’re voting for.

Our Views reflects the majority opinion of the members of the Grand Haven Tribune editorial board: Kevin Hook, Matt DeYoung, Mark Brooky, Josh VanDyke and Duncan MacLean. What do you think? E-mail us a letter to the editor to [email protected] or log-in to our website and leave a comment below.

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