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A conservation referendum enables citizens of a local municipality to vote to establish a dedicated tax for open space protection. It also enables citizens to approve borrowing beyond normal debt limits by counties or local municipalities for conservation projects.
If the proposed open space financing does not put a local government over its statutory debt or tax limits, there is no need for a referendum for the government’s governing body to take action. If the proposed financing will cause the local government to exceed its tax or debt limits, voter approval through a referendum is required. A referendum may still be desirable even if a municipality is below its statutory debt and tax limits, if the municipality plans to incur additional debt or raise taxes in the future. It may also be desirable because the referendum will serve to dedicate the tax or bond revenue to the conservation purpose described in the referendum.
All cities, boroughs and townships in Pennsylvania are permitted to levy dedicated property, earned income and real estate transfer taxes for the purchase of open space lands or development rights with the approval of a simple majority of voters through a ballot measure.
No limits on voter authorized property and earned income tax rates exist. However, state law limits the real estate transfer tax to 1.0%; if a community has already reached this level of taxation, it cannot be exceeded.
The state law (Act 153 of 1996) that authorizes cities, boroughs and townships to levy these taxes does not provide this authority to counties.
All county and local government units in Pennsylvania may issue non-voted debt if they are within the statutory debt limits permitted under the Local Government Unit Debt Act. The amount of non-voted debt that can be issued by a county is limited to 300 percent of its borrowing base; for other local governments, the limit is 250 percent of its borrowing base. The Act defines the borrowing base as the average annual revenue taken over the last three years.
If a bond issue would exceed the debt limit or hamper the jurisdiction’s financial flexibility by using too much of its non-voted debt issuing capacity, a voter-approved (electoral) bond measure can be sought. There are no statutory debt limits on the amount of voter-approved (electoral) debt, or self-sustaining debt.
Authority to conduct the referendum and incur electoral debt is found in both Pennsylvania’s Act 153 of 1996 (which amended the Open Space Lands Act, Act 442 of 1967) and the Local Government Unit Debt Act. If a referendum is carried out pursuant to Act 153, the money will need to be spent under the rules laid out in Act 153. Some municipalities have decided to hold open space bond referenda under the more general authority of their municipal codes and the Local Government Unit Debt Act, instead of Act 153.
The method for placing a referendum question on a ballot is set forth in the Pennsylvania Election Code (P.L. 1333, No. 320). First, the governing body must pass an ordinance to have the question placed on the ballot. For tax measures, the ordinance is then filed with the county board of elections at least 13 Tuesdays before the next primary or general election. The question for approval of a dedicated tax must be phrased with the following words:
Do you favor the imposition of a [describe the tax in mileage or rate] by [local government unit] to be used to [purpose]?”
For a debt referendum, the question must be submitted to the county board of elections at least 45 days in advance of the election and be phrased substantially as follows:
“Shall debt in the sum of [amount] dollars for the purpose of financing [describe purpose] be authorized to be incurred as debt approved by the electors?”
It is also necessary to publish election notices in local newspapers and legal journals beginning no earlier than three weeks before the election, but no later than two weeks before the election.
For both tax and debt referendum questions, the purpose should be described carefully so that the intent is clear to the voters and so that it authorizes all of the intended activities. An example might be “... for the acquisition of land and conservation easements for open space, recreation and the preservation of farmland.
Each referendum question must be customized to fit the situation at hand. If planning expenditures from the bond are anticipated, they must be described in the ballot.
For examples of ordinances to place a question on the ballot, see Appendix C of Public Finance for Open Space: A Guide for Pennsylvania's Municipalities.
The approval of a referendum question by the voters is a wonderful accomplishment. But the legislative work is not quite done. The approval of the voters by itself does not cause the tax to be implemented or the debt to be incurred. In all cases, the governing body of the municipality must pass an ordinance in order to enact the proposed financing. For examples of enabling ordinances, see Appendix C of Public Finance for Open Space: A Guide for Pennsylvania’s Municipalities.
Perhaps the most important key to a successful campaign is organization. Remember that the referendum process is a political process. Expect the same amount of time, work, fundraising and debate as you would for any other political campaign. First, decide which election would be best to put the referendum on the ballot. Primary elections usually have 8 to 10% turnouts; general elections 15 to 20%. If other tax or bond initiatives of the municipality or school district are scheduled, it may be better to postpone an open space funding question. Review historic voting patterns and results.
Time: Proponents should launch open space campaigns well in advance (at least 7 months to one year) of the vote in order to build well-rounded coalitions, gather information, survey residents, get measures on the ballot and communicate with the public.
Message: Stick to your message and focus on quality of life issues, the benefits to the community and the costs of not approving the referendum. Cost savings arguments will probably resonate most with the voters. If funds are available or can be raised, a public opinion survey can be an invaluable resource to determine what funding source(s) and amount voters will support, what purposes or uses of funds they find most compelling, and to test possible campaign messages and messengers.
Ballot language: In addition to meeting basic legal requirements, well-crafted ballot language can go a long way towards success. If a poll has been conducted it can be used as a guide to identify the most compelling purposes to include in the ballot language, such as protecting drinking water sources and water quality in rivers, lakes and streams. Legalese should be kept to a minimum and the costs should be presented in a clear and understandable way. An effective title is also helpful and permissible under PA statute.
Public support A well-organized and committed group of individuals is essential to developing and promoting the referendum.
While every campaign is unique, successful campaigns share some of the following common elements:
Discuss Pennsylvania’s Campaign Expense Reporting Law (25P.S.3241-3260b) with the municipal solicitor. All participants in a referendum campaign, whether public officials or individual volunteers, need to comply with Pennsylvania’s Campaign Expense Reporting Law (25 P. S. §§ 3241-3260b.) Under this statute, any group or individual that accepts more than $250 worth of contributions or spends more than $250 to influence the outcome of a referendum must register as a Political Action Committee (PAC) with the county board of elections and submit reports documenting expenditures and contributions. Campaign materials generated by the PAC should indicate that donations are not tax deductible for income tax purposes.
Public officials and employees should be cautious about their involvement in the campaigning. A public official may legitimately endorse a referendum and help to educate the public on the issues, and municipalities frequently use public funds to pay consultants for technical advice. But the line between non-partisan research and education activities and partisan advocacy can be a blurry one. It’s often better and politically acceptable if an independent organization or group conducts the campaign.
If in doubt, consult with legal counsel or the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission.
Public support for the referendum is critical. Voters deserve the right to know what their money will be used for and how much it will cost them. A campaign must explain clearly what is being proposed and how individuals and interest groups will benefit. Most likely, this will mean communicating several key messages through different channels and to different targeted audiences. To help with this effort, engage local organizations, such as environmental and watershed groups, municipal environmental advisory councils, planning commissions, park and recreation boards, athletic leagues, farming groups, senior citizen groups, “enlightened” builders, financial experts, local leaders, etc. Solicit support from the school board and ask them to endorse the referendum. It is imperative to keep local elected officials informed and supportive. Ask local political parties to endorse the referendum and make sure that they acknowledge the referendum in their party handout material.
Helpful ways to win voters’ support and provide opportunities to allay any concerns that may be raised:
As stated above, the referendum should be treated as a political campaign. Don’t sit back or you might lose! Never underestimate the potential opposition (developers in many cases). Anticipate and prepare to address negative campaigns. Opposition will likely come just before Election Day, which makes it very difficult to counter misleading information. Activate all networks to work on this together. Share efforts across municipal lines if the neighboring community has a referendum scheduled and avoid conflicting messages. In addition to the education-related steps discussed above, take action to distribute campaign posters/signs. An effective way to establish referendum awareness is through yard signs placed far and wide, especially at intersections of visible, well-travelled roads. Multiple direct mail pieces emphasizing key messages (based upon polling if available) can be very effective. Referendum mailings should be timed to arrive the 2-3 weeks leading up to the election. Visually appealing, well-designed post cards are eye catching and can bring cost-effective additional attention right before the election. Activate phone banks the last weekend before the election to get out the vote and target the audience. On Election Day, have volunteers hold signs and distribute flyers, or create information kiosks at the polling places to describe the issue and have friendly, knowledgeable people manning the kiosks to help answer questions.
Done properly, these three steps—organization, education and action will lead to passage of the referendum.
Once the measure passes, celebrate! Acknowledge success and the efforts of all those who worked on the campaign…particularly any legislators who championed your cause.
Once passed, make sure you support the applicants through the application process in order to ensure implementation success. Hold meetings to distribute information to potential applicants. Repeatedly reach out to them. Meet with them on an individual basis, preferably across their kitchen tables or in their living rooms. Have professional help available to assist potential applicants in preparing funding applications. Offer being the applicants’ advocate as they go through the appraisal/approval process.
The earliest township measure in Pennsylvania occurred in Lower Makefield, Bucks County in 1976. The first county measure occurred in Chester County in 1989.
Between 1998 and 2007, there were 120 local ballot measures in Pennsylvania, with 94 approved by voters, a 78% approval rate. In 2008, voters approved six of eight local ballot measures (75%), including a $10 million bond in Adams County. Most of the ballot measures have occurred in the eastern part of the state.
The first statewide referendum was “Key 93” (1993), a $50 million bond issue to supplement real estate transfer tax revenue dedicated by the Pennsylvania General Assembly for the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund. The most recent statewide conservation funding initiative was Growing Greener II, a $625 million bond issue passed in May of 2005.
While support for land preservation in Adams County has been demonstrated enabled the county to exponentially increase its potential for land protection. The collaboration between local, statewide, and national organizations was key in what has become a model for passing a conservation referendum.
A ballot measure had been considered in Adams County several years before but never seriously pursued. When the 2,500-acre Glatfelter Tree Farm came up for sale, local officials and conservationists knew they needed to work quickly to secure the acquisition funds.
The local township supervisors and the Adams County Board of Commissioners became involved early in the process and requested that the company engage in a dialogue with the parties interested in preserving the land.
With a daunting price tag of $12.5 million, purchasing the Tree Farm required fundraising at many levels. Although nearly half of the needed funds had been pledged by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, it was clear that Adams County would have to step up to the plate with a funding commitment of its own.
The county commissioners agreed to pursue a bond referendum on the ballot, which upon its approval, would provide $3.7 million to acquire the Tree Farm. This commitment provided the necessary leverage for The Conservation Fund (TCF) to negotiate a sales agreement and close on the property with bridge funding. Once the sales agreement was negotiated, work began immediately on the ground to pass the referendum.
A team was established to work on the bond referendum including national organizations, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), The Trust for Public Land (TPL) and TCF, as well as local organizations, Land Conservancy of Adams County (LCAC), The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the Adams County Farmland Preservation Board.
TNC enlisted the expertise and resources of its national conservation referendum team to assist with the measure since the tree farm was considered one of its conservation priorities.
Since 1986, TNC has worked closely with the TPL on over 200 open space ballot measures across the country. Over time, a special team was assembled to provide on the ground support, nationwide, for conservation ballot measures. This team has developed an impressive track record – 90% of the referendum campaigns it has worked on have been approved. Each campaign, win or lose, provides valuable lessons and take-aways that the team uses to further perfect their strategy.
TNC and TPL typically approach a ballot measure in the same way a person might pursue election to high political office. They prefer to begin the campaign work at least one year in advance, which in this case, gave the team time to put the measure on the same ballot as the 2008 Presidential election.
Feasibility research was conducted by TPL to better analyze the situation on the ground. The feasibility study, funded through national foundation funding, thoroughly evaluated funding options in the county and analyzed revenue projections. In addition, TPL’s initial research studied potential ballot language, best management practices from previous measures, previous ballot language, election history in the county, and success and failure of previous measures.
This study concluded that Adams County could incur additional debt in the form of a municipal bond and provided important data for the next phase of the process, public polling, which would determine if the taxpayers would be willing to assume additional county debt. (The feasibility study has been viewed as a valuable tool for the pollsters, providing background information on the region and guidance on what type of questions to ask.)
Both TPL and TNC see polling as a key step in the successful approval of a ballot measure, working with professional political pollsters to gauge public opinion on various aspects of the ask. Data collected determines, among other things, the type of funding mechanism, the right dollar amount, and the language to be used for the ballot. Funding a poll can be costly. In this case, TPL and TNC leveraged foundation funding while LCAC provided a small match.
One of the most valuable aspects of the polling was to test ballot language and understand what aspects of the measure were most important to voters. The poll also indicated that the public would support more than just the amount needed to purchase the Tree Farm; therefore, the measure was increased to $10 million, which fit well in the comfort zone of those polled who were willing to pay $20/year in new taxes for clean water, farmland preservation and access to new wilderness.
The polling helped formulate the public outreach campaign, “Vote Yes”, which was necessary to educate voters of the ballot measure. The poll informed the team on what issues were most important to voters and on which voters they needed to concentrate their outreach efforts.
A 501(c)4 campaign committee had to be established to run the "Vote Yes" campaign. In order to spend money to lobby for a ballot measure, the IRS requires that advocates form a 501(c)4 campaign committee. The Trust for Public Land has a 501(c) 4 structure that is designed to house local ballot measures, providing the umbrella structure for the fundraising committee to fit under.
The Committee to Protect Adams County Water and Land Partners included: Land Conservancy of Adams County, The Nature Conservancy, Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve, Adams County Farm Bureau, Watershed Alliance of Adams County, Trout Unlimited, Adams County Ag Land Preservation, Adams County Conservation District, Trust for Public Land, The Conservation Fund, South Mountain Audubon, Gettysburg Garden Club and Biglerville Garden Club.
The committee was successful in raising over $52,000 through partner organizations and individual donors. With this budget, the team was able to complete five mailings and produce palm cards to be given out at the polls. In addition to the mailing, the team secured volunteers to be present at most of the voting locations on election day to pass out materials and talk to voters. This was an opportunity to reach out to voters who had not been aware of the referendum.
The referendum passed with overwhelming support (75% approval). While rather common in the eastern portion of Pennsylvania, no county west of the Susquehanna River had ever passed a conservation funding referendum.
Through additional local public and private fundraising, and the award of a $3.5 million U.S Forest Service Forest Legacy grant, the project was completed in early 2010 and the tree farm was incorporated into the adjacent Michaux State Forest.
The success of the Adams County conservation referendum was the result of great collaboration, a well-researched and designed ballot measure, a well-funded campaign with effective messaging and communication strategies plus ample local support.
Dulcie Flaharty of Montgomery County Lands Trust authored the first draft of this tool, and Tom Gilbert of the Trust for Public Land contributed content. Substantial content was adapted from the Heritage Conservancy’s Public Finance for Open Space: A Guide for Pennsylvania’s Municipalities (2003).
Copyright © is held by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association
Text may be excerpted and reproduced with acknowledgement of ConservationTools.org and the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association.