Some counties are painfully aware of the need for a new justice center or jail. Aging infrastructure, not enough beds, emerging inmate classifications, and multiple security risks make the need for upgrades glaringly apparent to those who work inside such facilities.
Not all counties require referendums but for those who do, if those needs aren’t recognized and appreciated by community members, there’s a high likelihood they’ll reject any proposed referendum to construct a new facility.
Why do referendums fail? And how can key stakeholders increase the likelihood of a successful referendum process in the future?
Reasons Referendums Fail
While many objections might be voiced, the main reasons a referendum fails can typically be boiled down to these four causes:
1. Lack of Community Involvement and Understanding
A county board or planning committee can spend countless hours defining the need, solution, and cost for a new or upgraded facility. However, community members can feel detached if they can’t understand the “why” behind the “what.” Voters seek transparency and want an opportunity to be involved in the process. If they feel there are unanswered questions, that the proposal is too vague, or that their opinions aren’t being heard and addressed, there’s a greater likelihood they will reject the referendum.
2. Excessive Cost
Despite the best community involvement and communication, if a project’s cost translates to exorbitantly high tax increases that the average household can’t stomach, the referendum will likely fail.
3. Disorganized Communication Plan
Nothing will stop a referendum in its tracks faster than the appearance of a disorganized communication plan. Some voters may already have preconceived biases toward local government officials. Missed details, lack of documentation and answers, poor referendum wording, or other signs of poor management will breed further mistrust and confusion. Disorganized referendum communications can be fodder for those who take to social media to object to a proposal.
4. Lack of County Board Consensus
Dissension among the county board can be a major red flag for constituents. Expecting voters to agree to a referendum when county leaders and commissioners can’t build consensus around the proposal is a very tall order.
When a referendum fails, many county leaders wonder whether it’s worth going through the arduous planning and referendum process again. The harsh reality is that the reasons for pursuing a referendum in the first place won’t go away. On the contrary, the need for facility upgrades will compound as time goes on.
Learning from the experience is the key to moving forward, and taking the following measures to ensure past mistakes aren’t repeated can help increase the chances of referendum success.
Enlist an Experienced Referendum Team
One of the greatest contributors to success is ensuring that you have a team of construction experts who have navigated successful referendum processes before. Whether your county relied on an internal team to run the referendum campaign or hired an outside firm, enlisting a team of experts who can provide the insights, services, and oversight you need is imperative.
Understand Community Objections
One of the first things a construction management team will do is seek to fully understand why the community rejected the original proposal in the first place. There are often assumptions that may not be accurate. For example:
Is the total cost of the project really the main stumbling block?
Are there concerns over declining property values?
Are surrounding neighbors worried about increasing crime rates?
Is the proposed land use a potential threat to area wildlife or waterways?
Does the current facility have historical significance that should be preserved?
Do community members understand the risks and liabilities associated with current conditions?
Do they fully understand the implications of doing nothing?
A planning committee must get answers to all questions and objections and proactively address them, and then develop a strategic plan. An experienced construction management team will know which questions to ask and how to gauge community attitudes because they’ve navigated the process before.
The construction manager will review any initial facility assessments, data, and documentation to provide additional insights. A thorough understanding of the existing facility’s shortcomings is necessary, and it may require a fresh look. The team will also review the project proposal and pricing, and work with the architect and other stakeholders to determine where opportunities for improvement may lie. Based on their findings and their understanding of community objections, they’ll address specific concerns with the initial proposal so that community members better understand the need and proposed solution.
Determine New Pricing and Tax Implications
The cost of construction materials and labor continues to climb. Even if the construction manager finds potential cost savings in the original design, there’s a likelihood that the price of the project will increase due to inflation. This doesn’t necessarily mean that voters are more likely to reject a new plan. Properly communicating the cost of doing nothing may be more compelling than concerns over the cost to build.
An experienced jail construction estimator will determine real-time cost projections, and the construction manager will work with an audit team to determine tax implications for the average household.
Develop a Communication Plan
Once the needs, solution, and cost have been determined, the critical step of communication begins. We’ve found that this is where the break-down in community buy-in most often happens. Just as much, if not more time needs to be spent developing and executing a communication plan as is spent determining a facility’s design and cost.
Constituents need to be fully informed. A postcard mailer and a town meeting isn’t going to cut it. A strategic and well-designed communication plan is critical, including:
Videos and graphics
Mailers and printed communications
Media relations (newspapers, local television, etc.)
Social media page management and engagement
Numerous public information meetings
Assistance with referendum wording
Try, Try Again
All is not lost once a referendum fails, and community leaders, the sheriff, and other stakeholders will need to try once again to amend their proposal and gain community support. Properly communicating the needs to voters and ensuring they know the true implications of a proposed facility is the only way they can make an informed decision.
While there are no guarantees, leveraging the services and expertise of a construction management team like the Samuels Groupcan help provide the best chance of success. Contact our team of referendum and communication experts today to talk through how we can address your community’s challenges, and download our helpful guide to referendums below.