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Cambridge levy cap referendum, initially said to have failed in a tie, passes in recount

The referendum passed with a final certified tally of 280 “yes” and 279 “no" votes

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Correction: Our April 22 print edition incorrectly listed the tax increase for Cambridge property owners, following the passage of an April 6 levy cap referendum, as $117.52 per $100,000. In fact, that would have been the total impact had both the levy cap referendum and a separate fire station expansion referendum passed on April 6. The station referendum failed. The levy cap referendum impact alone will be $58.77 per $100,000 of assessed value, or about $147 for a $250,000 home. The correct figures have been previously published in print and online and the correction is made in the online version below. 

A recount has flipped the results of an April 6 Cambridge referendum, allowing the village to now exceed its state tax levy cap to fund emergency services and general expenses into the future.

The referendum that will let the village exceed its levy cap by $95,000 a year in perpetuity was initially reported to have failed in a tie, with 279 “yes” and 279 “no” votes.

But in that initial machine count, Cambridge Village Administrator Lisa Moen said, 15 ballots were found to have under votes on the levy cap question, which was one of two different referendum questions on the ballot.

An under vote means that those 15 voters initially appeared to have skipped that question, Moen said.

The village’s board of canvassers who met Friday, April 16 for a hand recount of ballots, ultimately certified that in the case of one of the under votes, which was an absentee ballot, the voter’s intent clearly was “yes.”

“The mark was consistent with other marks on the ballot, that were not totally located within the ovals,” said a village release. “A manual recount verified that the voter intent was a ‘yes’ vote.”

On the ballot in question, the mark was outside of the oval, so the machine read it as a skipped vote, Moen further confirmed.

"Upon visual inspection voter intent was clear,” Moen said.

Thus, the referendum passed with a final certified tally of 280 “yes” and 279 “no” votes.

On the other 14 ballots, the levy cap question was in the end still considered to have been skipped, Moen said.

The passage of the referendum gives the village the flexibility, beginning in its 2022 budget, to exceed its state levy cap. That cap limits how much Wisconsin municipalities can raise their annual tax levy year over year, based solely on their amount of recent net new construction. Communities that are not seeing much new development have been constrained in their ability to raise taxes.

In 2021, out of an overall $1.2 million budget, Cambridge was allowed to raise its tax levy just $34,000 over 2020. For the past two years, the village board has foregone street repairs and public works equipment purchases in order to come in under that cap, while also funding rising emergency service costs.

The recount was requested by former Cambridge Village Board member Paula Hollenbeck.

In an email, Hollenbeck said she was “pleased with the result, not just because the referendum passed but also (because) a vote that had been missed was counted.”

“Every vote counts and every vote should be counted. As a former member of the board and chair of the finance committee, I have true appreciation of what these additional dollars will be able to do for the services the village and staff provides to the community,” Hollenbeck said. “I think this due diligence effort was so worthwhile. Thanks to all those who participated in the recount activities. Vote! This shows that one vote does make a difference.”

Village President Mark McNally, who was present as a witness for the recount, agreed that the voter’s intent was clear.

“Upon closer examination of the ballot, it is readily apparent that the voter had made a decision to answer that referendum question affirmatively,” McNally said.

Two village board members also reacted to the final tally.

I would like to thank all those that took part in voting within the Cambridge community.

“As an Air Force veteran, I regard voting as a civic duty and an honor bestowed by past generations of Americans. I appreciate the confidence in our board’s expenditure restraint expressed by those that voted in favor of the levy limit increase,” board member Eric Wittwer wrote in an email.

“As chair of the Audit and Finance Committee, I am well aware of how badly the increased funds were needed. As Americans, a majority of the money we are taxed never stays within our local communities. This is a rare example of taxation where all of the funds stay right here at home, and allows us to finance government without needing to borrow against future generations. I hope to earn the trust of those that voted against the measure and welcome them join the discussion about our finances at the Audit and Finance meetings. As a fellow taxpayer, my family will share the additional tax burden alongside the rest of the community.”

And village board member Kris Breunig said in an email that he was “very pleased that the recount confirmed election day results. Again, democracy prevailed. A citizen came forward and asked for a recount in a vote so close it was determined a tie. A recount was done with full transparency and it was determined that one ballot was marked outside the yes oval and initially not counted. Again, I am pleased with the results and look forward to continue serving the people of Cambridge in my capacity as their trustee.”

Taxpayer impact

Based on a calculation by financial consultant Ehlers, Inc., the approved levy cap referendum will result in a tax increase for Cambridge property owners of $58.77 per $100,000 of assessed value, or about $147 for a $250,000 home.

Fire station referendum

The April 6 ballot in Cambridge also sought village voter approval to help fund a $6.5 million proposed expansion of the Cambridge fire and EMS station.

That question failed in Cambridge, with about 47 percent of voters saying “yes” and about 53 percent saying “no.” Four other communities that were to share in the cost of the station expansion project also held referendums on April 6. They failed in the towns of Christiana and Oakland and passed in the town of Lake Mills and village of Rockdale.

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