Almanac

News - December 28, 2011

College district asked for $564 million, but quietly

• Monetary figure left off all campaign brochures asking voters to approve bond measure.

by Dave Boyce

A voter might have been hard pressed this fall to determine how much money was on the table with respect to Measure H, a construction bond measure proposed by the San Mateo County Community College District.

The district was asking property owners for $564 million plus interest, which typically doubles the debt. The figure appeared in official election materials, but not in the district's direct-mail campaign, which included at least six slick, expansive, full-color direct mail pieces.

Voters rejected the measure by a narrow margin on Nov. 8. Previous bond measures raised $675 million, and Measure H was the third request since 2001 for the district's three colleges: Canada College in Woodside, Skyline College in San Bruno, and the College of San Mateo in San Mateo.

To pass, such measures need a 55 percent majority, not the two-thirds normally needed to increase a tax. Voters granted this privilege to school construction bonds in 2001, and Measure H just missed the mark, passing with 53.09 percent.

Had it passed, property owners would have paid about $13 a year for every $100,000 of a property's assessed value for the life of the bonds, typically 30 years.

In waging the direct mail campaign, the committee Citizens for Support of Community Colleges in San Mateo County spent $140,000 on production costs, according to finance reports and confirmed by spokesman James Keller, the interim president of Canada College.

What direct mail said and did not say was the committee's responsibility, Mr. Keller said. Also on the committee were the president of the College of San Mateo, the district chancellor, district communications director, and all five district board members.

Why didn't the total indebtedness figure appear? "I thought we were trying to emphasize what we needed (the money) for," Mr. Keller replied.

Direct mail is "campaign persuasion material," 2011 board President Richard Holober said in a telephone interview.

But $564 million in tax revenues for a public agency? Is that not an important detail? "I don't agree with you, but you're entitled to your opinion," Mr. Holober said.

Mr. Keller substantially agreed. The voter, he said, can find the total indebtedness on the ballot itself. Might a direct mail piece have more impact than a ballot statement? "Don't you read (the ballot)?" Mr. Keller asked.

On the ballot, the total appears as $564,000,000 and is located 11 lines down and 54 words into a 77-word sentence devoted to what can be done with the money and how it will be looked after. Lawyers write such ballot statements, Mr. Holober said.

By leaving "$564 million" out of direct mail, the committee was counting on voters not caring about total indebtedness because they want to help carry on the college district's substantial contributions to the county, Mr. Keller said. "We're all fairly optimistic," he said in describing the committee. "We're very proud of what (the district) has done."

What voters care about, political campaign consultants say, is the bottom line for them and their families, Mr. Holober said. Figures in millions of dollars "have no meaning" to voters, he said.

"In hindsight, we probably would have gotten a higher 'yes' if we had spelled out the cost per $100,000 (of assessed value)," he said.

Asked to comment, Jack Hickey, a Libertarian and an opponent of most tax increases, said that stating the total indebtedness of Measure H would have raised "a red flag" for voters. "Any brochure that we would have put out would have had the number," he said. "They should have had that in there. That's disingenuous, I would say, and not unexpected."

Plenty of donors

The Measure H campaign, which finance reports show collected $341,323 as of Oct. 22, got off to a rolling start with a donation of $131,822 in January. This was left over from 2010, when the district campaigned successfully for a $34 parcel tax, Mr. Keller said.

Sixteen other donors, all corporate, gave more than $5,000 to the campaign. Major donors included construction companies Robert A. Bothman Inc. of San Jose ($50,000), Hensel Phelps Construction Company, which has offices in San Jose ($25,000), and McCarthy Building Companies, which has offices in San Francisco ($25,000).

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