Baltimore County bond surprises

November 06, 1992

Bond issue ballot questions, usually not topics of great excitement, managed to produce a pair of mild surprises in Baltimore County last Tuesday.

First, Question F, a $600,000 bond issue for affordable housing, won 66 percent of the vote after many had expected it to fail. Second, Question H, a $1.7 million bond for community improvements in commercial districts, squeaked to victory. Its 53 percent vote total was surprisingly low compared with tallies for the eight other bond issues on the ballot, each of which won at least 62 percent.

The reason for these surprises might lie in how officials communicate their concerns to the public.

In the 1990 election, a $2.5 million bond issue for affordable housing was the only question defeated by voters who approved a record $195 million in bonds that year.

The question came up a loser because low-cost housing has never been a popular issue in the county. For years it has generated the fear among many white residents that affordable housing means tenements occupied by poor minority residents.

Mindful of the way that prejudice has blocked low-cost housing in the county, supporters of Question F undertook a low-key public campaign to promote the bond issue as a way to help hard-working, taxpaying citizens of all races realize the American dream of home ownership. No doubt Question F's unexpectedly easy ride to victory last Tuesday was owed in part to the promotional campaign by officials of government, civic groups and private organizations in the county.

The lack of a similar effort could have been blamed if Question H had failed. Some observers argued that voters saw a "community improvements" bond as a luxury. Yet the same might be said about Question E, a $3 million bond issue for park preservation, and that won with 66 percent.

Perhaps more plausibly, "community improvements" might have struck many voters as vague, particularly when other questions on the ballot were described with "school construction," "asbestos removal," "bridge repair" and other specific phrases that voters have little trouble envisioning.

Question H probably would have impressed more people if they had understood that it provides something as important as the revitalization of commercial districts.

As the election results suggest, county leaders should bear in mind that a little communication with voters can go a long way toward the success of bond issues -- especially on projects the public doesn't fully comprehend.

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