Story #35 Lessons Learned from Local FIRE Revenue Measure WINS & LOSSES
Local revenue measures benefitting public fire agencies have enjoyed a long history of success in California’s tough tax election environment. And yet, as unforeseen changes in the environment have taken their toll in recent years – like devastating wildfires resulting from climate change as well as the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, to name just two – local fire revenue measures have been impacted in good ways and bad. The truth is while most fire measures win, not all do. So here in simplest terms are 4 vital lessons learned to ensure YOUR fire measure succeeds.
Lesson #1: Build the right ballot package.
Because firefighters are universally loved by their local communities, many believe that all fire measures placed on the ballot are destined to win. Sadly, this is NOT true. By and large, people do love their local firefighters, but many still need to see a prudent, responsible ballot package before they’ll declare support and vote in favor of such a measure. And even in that case, there actually are communities where “anti-taxers” outnumber “pro-public safety” believers, which raises the stakes significantly, especially in those more conservative communities. This is why it’s so important to invest in building deliberately. The right ballot package targeted to the right set of voters in the right election can literally make the difference between winning and losing. This is so important that BEFORE going to the ballot most fire organizations hire a team of experts in election planning, communications, research, finance and legal compliance to help them build a ballot package that can win, one that is affordable, legally compliant and also resonates with their community.
Lesson #2: Make time to LISTEN! LISTENING takes time.
The process of preparing a community for a local revenue measure is different in every situation. Make time to do it right. Two goals are key: 1) LISTENING to your community; and 2) identifying the “sweet spot” between what your agency needs and what your community is telling you it will support. This work takes time! You MUST include your community in this process. By asking residents for input and incorporating their input into your ballot package, you are showing that you are LISTENING. Later, when voters see a measure that reflects their input, they will be more likely to support you. It takes time to reach out into a community, meet residents on their turf, LISTEN, and gather input – but it’s worth it. People support what they help create.
Lesson #3: Look out for red flags.
No local revenue measure passes with 100% support. Even the most spectacularly successful measures endured at least some people voting against them. If the opposition to a measure is quiet and limited in its organizational capacity, there may be no reason to adjust your electoral plans. However, a more likely scenario is finding in your electorate both supporters AND vocal, organized opposition to your measure. Scanning for “red flags” early will help. Sometimes problems can be eliminated simply by correcting misinformation or bringing skeptics together for intensive listening, Q&A, and candid conversations early in the process. As important as it is to understand what your community supports, it is just as important to understand who opposes you and why. In short, the earlier and more you can learn about potential opponents the better you can correct flaws and navigate wisely moving forward to attract the support you need to win.
Lesson #4: Be deliberate & customized in your communications.
The most successful fire measures are driven by leaders that communicate deliberately. They understand that telling a story of need matters. They pay careful attention to the two very specific types of communication for local revenue measures. First, “information-only”, featuring facts only, stated in the most neutral terms. Second, advocacy communications, are persuasive in tenor and tone and seek to advocate a specific position rather than simply providing neutral facts. During the election window, it is illegal for public agencies to use public resources to produce communications that are persuasive or advocate in any way. Advocacy communications must be produced by an independent (non-public agency) source (usually an independent campaign committee).
CliffordMoss has produced both types of revenue measure public communications, helping public agencies provide information-only materials that do not cross the line into advocacy, and guiding independent campaign teams to persuade and mobilize support. The two tracks are distinctly different from one another. For public agencies providing information-only, there are legal rules that must be followed. Proven tools include informational videos, social media programs, town hall meetings (virtual and in-person), direct mail (including two-way mailers), and bill inserts, to name a few. The most effective public information efforts evaluate where, specifically, their voters get information and employ a communications strategy that ensures an informed public when the voting begins. Bottom line: it is critically important to determine which path you will be taking as your measure approaches the election window. DELIBERATE navigation is essential to ensuring that a compelling, accurate, legally compliant standard has been met as you tell your story of need.
Preparing and passing a local fire measure in the current challenging electoral climate IS possible. And, it takes a deliberate investment to win. Make the effort to build the right measure for the right set of voters at the right election. Take time to LISTEN to your community. Actively scan for red flags – and make an effort to nip flaws in the bud, before they grow into bigger problems and attract opposition. Invest in telling your story deliberately, honestly, impactfully - and legally. Make time to learn the rules of the communications game. And finally, do the work. Follow these steps and YOU CAN WIN! If we can help in any way, feel free to reach out to CliffordMoss.
BONNIE MOSS (510) 757-9023 [email protected]
TOM CLIFFORD (510) 847-7155 [email protected]
AMANDA CLIFFORD (415) 244-5990 [email protected]
LAURA CROTTY (408) 839-5556 [email protected]