While election officials in Jefferson County continue to process votes, there’s one ballot item for which votes will not be counted: the up-or-down vote for a 7-cent property tax increase supporting Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS).
A late challenge to the ballot item was successful, and resulted in an order that the county clerk’s office not tabulate the votes. The tax increase, which would raise taxes by about 9.5%, will go forward without the voters weighing in.
Jefferson County Board of Education passed the increase of 7 cents per $100 of assessed value in May, but it was subject to recall by referendum under state law, because it amounted to an increase of more than 4%.
Opponents circulated an electronic petition to put the measure on the ballot for a recall vote. That petition was certified by the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office. But after a challenge from JCPS and the teachers’ union, a judge ruled that the clerk’s office erred when it certified the recall petition, and that opponents did not actually have the signatures needed.
Judge Brian Edwards ruled Friday that the tax could be levied without voter approval and that votes cast on the question should be “retained but not tabulated.”
“I said this, even before today, I was going to continue to battle and make the case no matter what happened,” JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio said last week. “I wasn’t going to back off…because I think it’s the answer for this community.”
The tax opponents have until the end of November to appeal, and they say they plan to do so.
“We’re working on it,” recall petition organizer and Louisville Tea Party President Theresa Camoriano told WFPL News. Camoriano said the group is collecting donations to pay for the cost of the appeal.
Camoriano is facing allegations she altered voter information on the petition to help it pass muster.
A spokesperson for the Jefferson County Clerk’s office, Nore Ghibaudy, said notices were posted in polling stations alerting voters that votes cast on the tax question would not be tabulated.
To comply with the judge’s order, employees had to override the computer system to redact the votes cast on the tax-levy question. As a result, Ghibaudy said the office didn’t tabulate the votes, but they’ll hang onto them for safe-keeping.
“In case they do appeal, or in case they want to reflect or look back on those numbers, we still have the memory sticks where we could pull those back up and that could be counted,” he said.
If petitioners were to win their appeal, it’s not clear what the remedy would be.
Even before the judge’s order, concerns were raised about confusing ballot language. And the judge’s order came before Election Day, so some voters submitted ballots assuming their vote on JCPS’s tax question wouldn’t have counted.
Camoriano acknowledged the confusion is “not ideal.” But she still wants the votes to be tallied.
“I would like to see the votes counted, and I believe if the votes are counted we will win overwhelmingly because I think the people of Jefferson County know that JCPS has not been good stewards with their money,” she said.
University of Kentucky law professor Joshua Douglas said if the petitioners were to win their appeal, he could see the judge ordering the votes cast in this election to be counted — or order a whole new referendum.
“I think either remedy is possible, it would really just depend on what the court decides,” he said.
He said there’s not clear guidance under Kentucky law to the court as to what remedy it should provide.
How much will taxes increase, and when?
Notwithstanding a successful appeal by tax opponents, the tax increase is effective this year. Home and property owners will already see 1.9 cents of the 7-cent hike on their annual tax bill this fall, because a portion of the tax increase that wasn’t subject to a recall vote has already gone into effect. The remaining 5.1 cent tax will be added to next year’s tax bill, according to JCPS spokeswoman Renee Murphy.
That means the tax bills for 2021 will be higher than usual. They will have both the full 7-cent increase for 2021, and the remaining 5.1 cents per $100 owed retroactively for 2020.
The tax is expected to raise an additional $54 million for the district. Pollio and the school board have said they desperately need additional funding to address $1.1 billion in unmet facilities needs. The superintendent often warns that entire school buildings are at risk of being condemned.
The district also plans to spend the additional funding on improving outcomes in schools with the highest needs and lowest test scores, and on improving racial equity.