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Nevada County judge rules in half-cent fire tax case

The half-cent fire prevention sales tax measure will appear on the November ballot, with two slight changes to the initiative’s language.

A Nevada County judge on Tuesday denied most of Audrey Pruett’s petition asking to stop the printing of ballots and voter information guides.

However, Judge Kent Kellegrew did agree with Pruett that the phrase “to save lives” should be removed from the ballot question. Also, the judge ruled the “¢” symbol will instead be a “%” symbol in the language.

The judge had to make a decision no later than Tuesday, as Wednesday is the last day local elections officials have to get the changes to the company that prints the ballots.

“The county is pleased that the court agreed that Measure V is a general tax and that its ballot language was neither false nor misleading,” County Counsel Kit Elliott said in an email. “The county has made the two minor changes requested by the court. The county appreciates the court’s quick and decisive ruling on this important matter, which will allow all ballot materials to be printed and shipped to the voters of Nevada County on time.”

Supervisors in August voted to put the half-cent tax on the November ballot. If passed, officials say $12 million will be raised a year. The money would go toward fire prevention and mitigation efforts.

Kellegrew in his decision said words and phrases like “critical” and “reducing,” as well as “and for general government use,” were not argumentative or prejudicial. However, “to save lives” referred to the “dramatic” and “emotional.”

“Alluding to loss of life, a less likely outcome, as contrasted with loss or damage to real and personal property appears more likely to play upon the heart strings of the public,” the judge states. “With respect to this one phrase in the ballot measure, the language does appear to be adversarial and nonneutral.”

Pruett, represented by her husband, attorney Barry Pruett, also prevailed in her argument that the “¢” symbol could be confusing to voters. It will now be replaced by the symbol for percentage.

The most significant part of Pruett’s argument — that the tax should be “specific,” not “general” — didn’t convince the judge.

The Board of Supervisors voted to put the issue on the ballot as a general tax, meaning it must only pass by a simple majority. However, the revenue gained from the tax isn’t earmarked specifically for fire prevention and mitigation, and will go into the general fund.

Supervisors have said a citizens oversight committee, annual audit and 10-year sunset on the tax, among other items, will provide safeguards.

Pruett argued it should instead by a specific tax, which must pass by two-thirds, because the ballot question states specific purposes on which money would be spent.

“While the petitioner takes exception to some of the language used in the ballot label, impartial analysis and fiscal impact statement, this court is satisfied that should Measure V be adopted, the public would have been adequately informed that it was adopting a general tax,” Kellegrew states. “This court finds that Measure V is designed to enact a general tax. Accordingly, the vote required for passage of Measure V is a majority of the votes cast.”

Alan Riquelmy is the managing editor of The Union. He can be reached at ariquelmy@theunion.com or 530-477-4249

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