KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Maysville City Clerk Pat Fisher-Johnson remembers being in tears two years ago when she got off the phone with the DeKalb County Clerk’s Office.
Voters had approved a four-year tax-levy renewal for street maintenance during the pandemic-delayed municipal election in June 2020, but an errant decimal-point placement was poised to cost Maysville nearly $50,000 in tax revenue.
The ballot language asked voters to approve the “.50 cent tax levy” for another four years, but the existing tax levy was actually 50 cents, or $0.50.
When the Missouri State Auditor’s Office reviewed the pro forma and set the city's 2020 tax ceiling, the maximum levy amount for streets was 100 times less than Maysville officials were expecting.
“I said, ‘Oh, what can we do?’ and I was about ready to go into a board meeting and I had to tell our board members that there had been an error made,” Fisher-Johnson said.
The DeKalb County Clerk’s Office reached out to the state auditor about amending the allowable tax ceiling, but there was nothing that could be done to change it.
“It was pretty much black and white on the paperwork that that’s what we certified, so that’s what they had to go with,” Fisher-Johnson said. “We had certified that amount, and that’s what we had to take.”
Maysville officials reviewed the certification documents, which confirmed the error, and the town of more than 1,000 people an hour north of Kansas City was left with no recourse.
History may be poised to repeat itself after the April 5, 2022 election.
Nearly 60% of voters in the Tri-County Ambulance District — a 620 square-mile swath north of Kansas City that includes parts of Buchanan, Clinton and Platte counties — supported a tax-levy increase the district board forth during last week’s special election.
But the ballot language may prevent the Tri-County Ambulance District from realizing the full intended benefit.
Voters were asked to permit the district “to increase its authorized tax levy by 0.08 cents per one hundred dollars assessed valuation.”
The Tri-County Ambulance District Board of Directors approved placing an 8-cent tax-levy increase on the ballot last year, but the “0.08 cents” language on the ballot may prove problematic.
Rather than requesting $0.08 or 8 cents, the placement of the decimal point may leave the Tri-County Ambulance District with 100 times less money than it hoped for from passage.
The current tax levy for the district is 27 cents. While the board approved requesting an increase to 35 cents, the Missouri State Auditor’s Office may only sign off on a 0.08-cent increase to 27.08 cents due to the imprecise ballot language.
If passed, the ambulance district expected the 8-cent tax-levy increase to generate more than $200,000 in tax revenue to help "increase wages nearer to the level being paid in (the) Kansas City & St Joseph area," according to the minutes of the November 2021 Tri-County Ambulance District Board meeting.
However, if the state auditor only approves the 0.08-cent increase, the district would receive a little more than $2,000 in additional tax revenue this year.
The Tri-County Ambulance District board — which meets again Tuesday, April 12 — will likely celebrate voters approving a tax-levy bump.
“The cents were expressed in the plural and not the singular,” an attorney for the Tri-County Ambulance District said in a statement via email to KSHB 41. “The will of the people should and shall prevail. We are not anticipating any challenges to the true results of the election. We are very grateful to the voters.”
Recent history strongly suggests that the state auditor’s office, which reviews a pro forma after election results are certified then sends a document that sets the ambulance district’s tax ceiling within 15 days of receiving the pro forma, won’t sign off on an increase to 35 cents.
“The campaign literature and the minutes clearly showed that a full eight cents was intended,” the Tri-County Ambulance District said via email.
It’s important to note that the Missouri State Auditor’s Office has not received a pro forma from the most recent election, so it has not yet made a determination on the ambulance district’s tax ceiling for 2022.
Unfortunately for the ambulance district, this isn’t the first time a decimal point has turned into a sticking point.
State auditor’s warning
Jill Wilson, a local government/policy senior analyst with the Missouri State Auditor’s office, sent a letter to all county clerks dated Nov. 4, 2021, which spelled out the issue.
“Ballot wording used to establish property tax levies is required to be very specific,” Wilson wrote. “The actual ballot language is reviewed by us to help determine the tax rate ceiling allowed. We must rely on the actual wording and cannot assume the intent of the ballot language.”
That seems to be at odds with the Tri-County Ambulance Board’s position that the plural use of cents makes the intention clear.
Wilson specifically warned that “some political subdivisions are requesting a fraction of a cent authorization from the taxpayers (i.e. 0.XX cents) instead of requesting the whole cent to be authorized (i.e. XX cents or $0.XX or the number spelled out cents).”
She wrote that such language “does not mathematically equal XX cents, it equals XX hundredths of a cent or $0.00XX.”
Wilson’s letter noted that the state auditor’s office “cannot certify a rate higher than that specifically authorized in the ballot wording” and asked all county clerks to “assist any political subdivision when they are approving ballot language by explaining these details.”
It is not the responsibility of the county clerk or election board, depending on which entity operates and manages election in a given county, to write ballot language, but pointing out a possible error or suggesting a clarification is within the purview.
It’s unclear whether the Tri-County Ambulance District board received a copy of the letter before certifying the ballot language for Tuesday’s election.
“We anticipate no taxpayer challenge or if made such an effort would be unsuccessful,” the Tri-County Ambulance District board said. “We are confident we can work out any issues with the State Auditor’s Office.”
Such an outcome remains uncertain however.
Maysville isn’t the only tax jurisdiction in Missouri to have run into issues over decimal-point placement in ballot language.
City officials there were thrilled with 79% of voters signed off on a four-year extension meant to pay for street improvements, but the discovery of the error in ballot language created a major headache for Maysville.
“From there, we had to wait until the next election basically and had to rescind that ordinance and redo that ordinance asking for an amendment to change that, put in the proper language and make sure we put the decimal and dollar sign in there,” Fisher-Johnson said.
The city also had to “re-educate our public as to why we were asking for it again.”
Ultimately, nearly 74% of voters approved the amended tax-levy question in April 2021, making the city budget whole again, but the financial damage had already been done.
“We basically weren’t able to do any major street repairs for a whole year,” Fisher-Johnson said. “We worked off our reserves to do any emergency stuff that we could do, but we did no major repairs. Our street (fund) balance went down almost $50,000. We just did the basic stuff we could do.”
Maysville is now playing catch up with street repairs and working to rebuild the depleted reserves.
Residents were disappointed with the delays but understanding.
“We’re just glad we caught it and it wasn’t for four years, because it was quite a revenue default for us,” Fisher-Johnson said.
Hope for Tri-County
Unlike Maysville’s situation two years ago, things aren’t dire for the Tri-County Ambulance District.
For starters, Maysville’s ballot question was a tax-levy renewal, so the lost revenue blew a hole in the budget.
The Tri-County Ambulance District’s question was a new increase. While it might delay plans for hiring or increasing pay for emergency personnel, it won’t impact the existing budget.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the April 2020 municipal election by two months, which meant there wasn’t time back then for Maysville to get a new ballot question certified for the August 2020 primary because the deadline had passed.
With the November 2020 election scheduled after the deadline to certify the tax-levy rate for that year, Maysville had to wait until April 2021 before voters got a chance to weigh in on fixing the mistake and restoring the street funding.
Fisher-Johnson’s advice for other taxing jurisdictions: “Double-check your math, double-check everything. Make sure your attorney looks it over, make sure outsiders look it over — just double-check everything. Ours was just a simple decimal-point placement. That’s all it was. Make sure you’ve got your dollar signs and decimal points in the right spots.”
For the Tri-County Ambulance District, there may yet be hope.
The deadline for candidates seeking political office to declare for the Aug. 2 primary, which is the next scheduled election in Missouri, passed last week.
But the final ballot certification for other issues, including tax-levy questions, isn’t until May 24.
Theoretically, there’s enough time for the Tri-County Ambulance District to try to place another tax-levy question on the August ballot and squeeze it through the election certification and state auditor’s processes in time to be included in the 2022 tax rolls.
Otherwise, the ambulance district may have to wait until next year and try again, missing out on all but a fraction of 2022 collections.
If Maysville had the option to fix it in 2020 and not deal with the budget hole two years ago, Fisher-Johnson said the city happily would have saved a few tears and a massive headache.
“Absolutely, we would have gone for it again, because it was $50,000 that we lost out on in revenue for that year,” she said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the date of the Tri-County Ambulance Board's April 2022 meeting. As of April 12, the board website indicated that meetings were the second Wednesday of each month, but the board changed meeting dates to the second Tuesday of each month in November 2021.