My Complaint To Ohio’s Election Commission: The Word “Absolutely” Means “Without Exception”

I’m convinced that comments made during Kettering’s 6.9 mill renewal levy, that passed on May 5, violated Ohio’s Revised Code. I’ve given myself a week to think about whether I should proceed with making a formal complaint to the Ohio Election Commission, and I’ve decided to go ahead, though I still need to have the document notarized.

I’ve boiled down my complaint to one specific comment made by the Superintendent of Kettering Schools, Robert Mengerink, in the school publication mailed to all Kettering households, “The Blue Ribbon Report.” In that publication, received by voters a couple of weeks prior to the election, Dr. Mengerink is quoted as saying, “There will be absolutely no increase in taxes as a result of this Renewal Issue.”

If you listen to Dr. Mengerink’s comments at the Kettering Board of Education meeting, you will see that at that meeting he used great care to not say something that was technically inaccurate — though, obviously, his words transmitted misinformation to most viewers. It is interesting that, in light of Dr. Mengerink’s care in his spoken comments, that he would allow “The Blue Ribbon Report” to cross the line and print a written statement, a quote from him, that, in my judgment, is impossible to defend.

“Absolutely,” to me, rules out any exception of using alternative meanings of the phrase “no increase in taxes,” since the word “absolutely” means “without exception, without condition.” I am attaching the copy of “The Blue Ribbon Report” that was sent to my house. You can see the report here.

I followed the guide for making complaints, so I hope there is not some technicality I missed that will cause it to be rejected. You can see a PDF of my full complaint here.

I am also attaching to the complaint a copy of a letter prepared, I believe, by the principal of one of the Kettering Elementary School in my neighborhood, Oakview School. My contention is that this letter occured in response to Dr. Mengerink’s promise of “absolutely no increase in taxes,” and gives a clear meaning of how the word “absolutely” was meant to be understood. The Oakview letter says, “Remember, this issue won’t cost any of us one cent more in taxes …” You can see a copy of the Oakview letter here.

The issue that is important here is the issue of local control, as I write about here. The issue is that public schools have little hope for improvement if antidemocratic forces are in control. I write about here.

Now to get this notarized and in the mail — and then to see what happens.

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12 comments to My Complaint To Ohio’s Election Commission: The Word “Absolutely” Means “Without Exception”

  • Eric

    While nicely written, the complaint falls short on two points:

    1. “increase in taxes” can reasonably be interpreted as “increase in dollars owed in taxes” rather than effective rate.
    2. It’s the decline of commercial valuation relative to residential that’s sure to increase taxes paid by voters.

    I also object to using the word “antidemocratic.” They followed common practice during times unprecedented in their personal experience. More of a booboo than a zealous, knowing act certain to undermine respect for public education.

  • Mike Bock

    Eric, thanks for your comments, but you did not respond to what I feel is the key point in the complaint. I write: The use of the word “absolutely” prohibits qualification of the word, “taxes,” since the word “absolutely” clearly communicates, and was intended to communicate, “without exception, without qualification.”

    I didn’t feel it necessary to fully analyze why the effective rate for this Kettering school levy is increasing and why it will continue to increase. The point is the trend has been established and Dr. Mengerink knew about this trend when making his statements assuring “absolutely no increase in taxes,” and expert testimony, I feel, from the school treasurer and possibly others will show why this rise will continue. I would expect that under oath the Kettering’s School Treasurer would be obligated to testify that he had fully informed Dr. Mengerink that the effective rate for this renewal levy is expected to continue to rise. I imagine there was even a prediction of how much the rise would likely be. These school officials are highly regarded experts in school operations. They have advanced degrees and a lot of experience. So, if it is known that approval of the renewal would raise taxes another 3 cents per $1000 of taxable property, then I can think of no defense for distributing to every Kettering household this statement: “There will be absolutely no increase in taxes as a result of this Renewal Issue.” Can you? I don’t think “booboo” counts.

    I believe it is a fair analysis that the strategy used to pass this renewal levy was fundamentally an antidemocratic strategy, as I explained in a previous post, but I didn’t use the word “antidemocratic” in my official complaint. The purpose of the complaint is to give good reason why a formal hearing — where witnesses would testify under oath — would establish beyond doubt that Ohio’s Revised Code was violated. I would be surprised if the Commission doesn’t take the next step and call a hearing, but I have a lot to learn about how all of this actually works. I have a lot of respect for the individuals who worked hard to pass this levy, I know they have good motives, but the clear fact is that many involved in the levy campaign were well aware that the effective rate was rising and their decision to misinform the public about the impact of approving the renewal was a very wrong choice.

  • Eric

    many involved in the levy campaign were well aware that the effective rate was rising and their decision to misinform the public …

    You rashly presuppose a “decision to misinform the pubic” based on awarenes of effective rate increase. Since the rate increase only serves to keep taxes due unchanged (i.e. “no increase”), I see how this claim advances your case.

    You are actually making the case for defense of the Kettering levy committee: folks operating in good faith are confused. The case I believe you need to make is knowing or reckless assertion of “no increase” when proponents knew or should have known residential property would bear an increasing proportion of property tax revenue. Instead, you have made the case that a false statement was made in good faith. That’s not a violation of law.

    Highlighting the word “absolutely” nicely makes the case that false statements were made, but for omission of the shift toward residential property.

    I conflated use of the word “antidemocratic” with overly personalizing the complaint on Dr. Mengerink’s words–you kept the tone of the complaint better than the blog posts, but I would have preferred seeking an advisory opinion jointly with the levy committee.

    It’s a nice letter. But the claim that an effective rate increase (without subtantiating the claim that taxes owed increases) is a loser, IMHO.

  • Mike Bock

    Eric, you write, “Instead, you have made the case that a false statement was made in good faith. That’s not a violation of law.”

    I can’t see that I am making the case that a false statement was made in good faith. On the contrary, I am trying to make the case that the Ohio Revised Code has been violated. The Code says, “No person, during the course of any campaign in advocacy of or in opposition to the adoption of any ballot proposition or issue, by means of campaign material, including sample ballots, an advertisement on radio or television or in a newspaper or periodical, a public speech, a press release, or otherwise, shall knowingly and with intent to affect the outcome of such campaign do any of the following: (2) Post, publish, circulate, distribute, or otherwise disseminate, a false statement, either knowing the same to be false or acting with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not, that is designed to promote the adoption or defeat of any ballot proposition or issue.”

    My Complaint focuses on just one sentence — “There will be absolutely no increase in taxes as a result of this Renewal Issue” — a quote from Dr. Mengerink made in “The Blue Ribbon Report.” To show that The Revised Code was violated, the way I read it, three conditions must be met. My contention is that this is 1) a false statement, 2) designed to promote the adoption of a ballot proposition and that 3) when Dr. Mengerink made the statement he knew it to be false.

    An increase in the effective rate of taxation means that regardless of zero increase in property valuation that there in an increase in tax obligation. This is called an “Increase In Taxes.” Many properties in Kettering have had no change in their official property valuation and so, for those properties, the statement, “absolutely no increase in taxes as a result of this Renewal Issue,” is a false statement.

  • Eric

    An increase in the effective rate of taxation means that regardless of zero increase in property valuation that there in an increase in tax obligation.

    We continue to disagree, and this (erroneous, IMHO) contention is at the core of your complaint. An increase in a voters tax bill will occur if the voter’s property value increases relative to the total value of property taxed to raise the levy amount. Your complaint needs to make this case, IMHO.

  • Mike Bock

    Eric, you write, “An increase in a voters tax bill will occur if the voter’s property value increases relative to the total value of property taxed to raise the levy amount.”

    I agree that what you are saying is true, but my statement that you highlighted — An increase in the effective rate of taxation means that regardless of zero increase in property valuation that there in an increase in tax obligation — seems, to me, simply another way of saying the same thing. (An increase in the effective rate of taxation occurs because total value of property decreases. If a person’s property value stays constant, then the person’s property value has increased relative to the total property value.) I like my words better, because I believe my explanation will resonate with more readers than the more technical sounding explanation you give.

    I can’t see anything in my highlighted statement that is erroneous or in conflict with your statement. An increase in the effective rate of taxation, as applied to a given taxable amount, it seems to me, in anybody’s book, must be called an “Increase In Taxes.” I think it is impossible, in fact, to argue that this definition of “Increase in Taxes” is in error, and this is the “Increase In Taxes” that the levy renewal will cause.

  • Eric

    Last year the effective tax rate for this levy was 6.13 mills and this year it is 6.16 mills. According to the county auditor’s office, this rate is expected to rise again next year.

    Is the effective tax rate changing without reappraisal? Why? What is the schedule for reappraisal–is it rolling? If the effective rate increases without a corresonding decrease in property value, the tax bill has, indeed, increased.

  • Decreases in the communities property value easily can occur between reappraisala. For instance a property owner can appeal their valuation even when it is not a reapprailsal year. If a house or business is torn down and not replaced the value of the improvements are removed from the valuation. And in the other direction if a new building is added or expanded it can increase the value in the following year.

    When the first two happen it can cause the effective tax rate to go up.

    In the last example it can cause the effective tax rate to go down. That is why so many seem so eager to have new development in their community.

  • Eric

    A narrative would have been darned helpful anytime during the last month. Something like:

    – A saw my property tax bill go up by a few dollars
    – I checked with the auditor and found the effective rate for a school levy went up
    – The auditor explained that between reappraisals total property valuation went down due to appeals and demolition.
    – Value increases through new construction didn’t compensate for value losses
    – This situation will likely continue

    Because of this, I object to the assertion that a levy renewal will result in “absolutely no tax increase.” The only way to guarantee no tax increase is to pass a new levy with a maximum rate equal to the current effective rate of the existing levy.

    It will be interesting to see what the OEC says.

  • Mike Bock

    Eric, I did have my signature notarized and I mailed my complaint on Wednesday, June 17. I sent it certified mail. I made some changes in the complaint as originally posted, but I’ve updated the PDF of my complaint and it can be read in the link above.

  • “The only way to guarantee no tax increase is to pass a new levy with a maximum rate equal to the current effective rate of the existing levy.”

    Don’t count on it. If your value goes up while the district average drops you will be paying more.

    (Isn’t this fun.)

  • Eric

    Don’t count on it. If your value goes up while the district average drops you will be paying more.

    Oops. All the more embarrassing since I’ve made that same point myself–repeatedly!

    Thanks for catching my booboo. Honest. Just a booboo. No antidemocratic conspiracy. Trust me!

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