Middleburg Heights, a Cleveland suburb of nearly 15,000 residents, wanted to raise dollars 17 million for a new community center, but voters had been adamant in the past about rejecting new taxes. Mayor Gary Starr turned to Jack DeSario, president of D&R Consulting and a political science professor at Mount Union College, to craft a campaign that would convince voters to back a city payroll tax increase from 1% to 1.75%, which would generate dollars 5.5 million annually.
DeSario did research after Middleburg Heights voters rejected a 1995 tax proposal and found that Starr was still a popular local figure. Starr has won 10 elections and been mayor for 20 years. DeSario and Starr decided the mayor should be the spokesperson for the new campaign. 'He was willing to put his reputation on the line,' DeSario says.
Some taxing bodies try to scare voters into approving new taxes by predicting dire consequences to local services if they don't. Starr didn't think that approach would work in his town. He opted for a soft-sell. 'Nowhere did we say 'vote for the tax,'' the mayor recalls.
The mayor sweetened the deal by agreeing to rebate taxes to residents who worked in towns with a higher payroll tax than he was proposing. As a result, only about 23% of the town's residents would pay higher taxes if the proposal was approved. Some would actually get money back.
Two direct mail pieces were created. The city spent dollars 12,000 on architectural renderings of the community center and sent them to residents along with the mailer. A 60-second TV spot with the mayor ran for three weeks on local cable channels.
Starr and members of the city council also made appearances at the town's Safety Days, an event to promote bike safety, and at MH's Home Days, a local annual festival. The matter was discussed at public council meetings.
The city recreation department assembled 100 volunteers to go door-to-door with information or hand it out at local events. Handouts explained how money raised would be used and that the town would still have the lowest payroll tax rate in the area.
Voters approved the proposal 2,105 to 893 in August 1997. The resulting 83,000-square-foot center opened this June and garnered coverage in USA Today. Locally, the opening was covered by ABC and CBS affiliates. The drive to raise taxes got ongoing coverage in The Plain-Dealer and the local Sun Newspapers.
The city was able to secure a bond rating upgrade after the tax passed, lowering the interest on the dollars 30 million in bonds it sold to finance the center, a new service garage and other projects.
Other Ohio towns are seeking advice from Middleburg Heights to help pass similar proposals. Continued income generated from the tax increase will be used to pay off bonds, build a municipal service garage and increase city services.