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District seeks circuit court ruling on what rate it can legally impose following ballot language snafu

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Columbia 911 Communications District board of directors filed a validation lawsuit for a judge to review a ballot measure issued to voters earlier this year. The ballot measure asked voters to renew the operating levy tax, but the ballot language contained a typographical error.The Columbia 911 Communications District is seeking judicial review to determine how to impose an operating levy tax that contained a typo in the ballot language but was approved by voters in May.

On Thursday, Aug. 15, the district's legal counsel, Blake Fry, an attorney for the Portland law firm Mersereau Shannon LLP, filed a validation petition in Columbia County Circuit Court requesting a judge review the case and determine what tax rate to impose.

During the May election, the Columbia 911 Communications District asked voters to approve a renewal of a five-year operating levy for the special district. While district officials and the board of directors indicated the ballot measure was intended to ask voters to renew the current levy rate, reporting from The Daily News in Longview, Washington, just days prior to election revealed a typo on the tax rate, which ultimately sent the district down a legal path to determine what rate it should impose.

While ballot text indicated voters were being asked to approve a levy renewal of ".29 cents per $1,000 of assessed value," the petition filed by the 911 district indicates the rate was intended to be 29 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, rather than just a percentage of a cent.

The petition also asserts that voters were aware of the intended rate based on news articles and the previously imposed levy rates implemented by the Columbia County Assessor's Office.

Additionally, the petition states that when the ballot text was publicly noticed on March 1 prior to the election, no challenges were filed by the deadline of March 4 to have the ballot titled changed.

Mike Fletcher, the 911 district's executive director, said the validation lawsuit will require a lengthy public notice process before anything can be resolved.

Following the election in May, the 911 district's board of directors began working with legal counsel through Special Districts Association of Oregon to determine its next steps after the typographical error was pointed out.

While the district was working with its legal counsel on completing the validation lawsuit, Tyler Miller, a Scappoose resident, on June 21 filed a separate civil lawsuit against the 911 district through his lawyer, Tyler Smith. That suit is asking the court to declare that the 911 District may not assess more than a fraction of a cent per $1,000 of assessed property value per year, court documents indicate.

"The 911 District board proposes to charge a tax rate 100 times larger than the rate advertised in the ballot statement and noticed in the ballot question and ballot summary," the document states.

While the typo may been reported this year, the petition filed by the 911 district indicates the error has also appeared on several ballot measures since the early 2000s. The petition filed by the 911 district points out that the typographical error was repeated, but argued that the tax rate imposed by the tax assessor's office has always been 29 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, and the district had planned its budget around this revenue.

While both legal documents support different arguments for what tax rate should be imposed. Fletcher explained that both are seeking the same thing — a judicial review and a ruling on how to proceed.

"The validation process will answer both our question as well as the case filed by Mr. Miller on if the voters believed they were voting for and approving a tax of 29 cents per 1,000 dollars of assessed value to fund the Columbia 9-1-1 Communications District," Fletcher stated in an email to the Spotlight.


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