Orange Cove’s Measure O fails by 0.2%, gets recount

Orange Cove City Manager Daniel Parra requests a recount of Measure O, the city’s special parcel tax for police and fire services

(JHDT Productions / AdobeStock)
(JHDT Productions / AdobeStock)
Serena Bettis
Published April 4, 2024  • 
11:00 am

ORANGE COVE – The city’s attempt to renew its special tax has failed for the second time in the last six months, with the outcome once again being determined by just a handful of votes.

Known as Measure O, the parcel tax for police and fire services needed a two-thirds majority — at least 66.6% of the vote — to pass. The 352 votes cast in favor of the measure made up 66.4% of the vote; just three more “yes” votes would yield the result the city is hoping for. In light of that, City Manager Daniel Parra asked the Fresno County Registrar of Voters for a recount, which is scheduled for April 10. 

“I hope we’re successful,” Parra said. “If not, it’s the citizens of Orange Cove that will be the ones paying for this, because they won’t have the police force they need.”

Measure O is a special tax that is only levied against property owners at a flat, annual rate determined by parcel type. The city budgets for an approximate $260,000 to be generated from the tax, which distributes 80% of the funds to the Orange Cove Police Department budget and 20% of the funds to the Orange Cove Fire Protection District.

The measure is a renewal of a tax passed in 2014 and places a $95 tax on single-family residential parcels and agricultural parcels, a per-unit $65 tax on multi-family residential properties, a $495 tax on commercial parcels and a $750 tax on industrial parcels.

If the recount is unsuccessful, the city plans to bring the measure to the ballot again in November because of the funding it provides to police and fire services. The average annual police department budget in Orange Cove is about $2 million, and the Measure O revenue makes up approximately 10% of that.

Parra said Measure O funds two police officer positions, including salaries and benefits, and some equipment for the department. Those positions are currently vacant due to officers transferring out of the department, and Parra said he will not be including them in the budget for the upcoming fiscal year if the recount is unsuccessful. 

According to a special tax levy summary for fiscal year 2023-24, there were 1,733 parcels counted within the city limits, including 61 public property parcels that were exempt from the tax. 

The collected taxes all together brought in $270,395. When broken down by parcel zone type, the city collected $140,125 from a total of 1,475 single-family parcels, $63,635 from a total of 979 multi-family units located across 76 parcels, $95 from one agricultural parcel, $45,540 from 92 commercial parcels and $21,000 from 28 industrial parcels.

Orange Cove’s history with Measure O

Measure O first passed in November 2014 with 67.6% of the vote, and included in it was a sunset clause with an expiration date of Nov. 30, 2024. The language of the current measure removes the sunset clause, but does not change anything else.

To get ahead of the expiration date, Orange Cove first attempted to renew the tax in November 2023. That failed by another slim margin, with 64.3% of the vote going in favor of the measure. 

Cities often have a difficult time passing special taxes because of the two-thirds requirement. Parra said that part of the problem the city has faced in passing the measure is that “people keep thinking it’s a (new) tax; it’s not, it’s a continuation of a 10-year tax.” 

For the Fresno County voters guide, Orange Cove Mayor Diana Guerra Silva submitted an argument in favor of the measure, and the Libertarian Party of Fresno County submitted an argument against the measure as well as a rebuttal against Guerra Silva’s argument.

The original argument against Measure O questioned the legitimacy of the process for putting the measure on the ballot without providing any proof of wrongdoing. 

Within the rebuttal, the letter said the tax “is a way to guilt you into paying even higher taxes when you are already feeling the pain of higher costs at the grocery store and gas pump.” 

Other objections to the measure had more to do with the communication surrounding it rather than the measure itself. Orange Cove resident Isaiah Lopez said that he is strongly against the measure because he feels there has been a lack of transparency around the process for putting it on the ballot and removing the sunset clause. 

Lopez said he was not against the special tax itself, or even the removal of the sunset clause, because he agrees with the need to fund public safety.

“I just want to know why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Lopez said.

At public hearings in both June and November 2023, the Orange Cove City Council voted unanimously to pass the resolution putting the measure on the ballot; however, the second public hearing was held at a special council meeting scheduled for 11:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, which is not typically a time most members of the community can attend a public meeting.

“It’s very scarce, the information that they have shared on the ballot itself, and the propaganda, the information that they have put in our mailboxes that they have paid for, it’s very intimidating,” Lopez said. “If there were workshops … it would help relieve the questions that people have.”

Additionally, Lopez said he wanted to see a strong citizen’s oversight committee set up to review the funds.

The original measure passed in 2014 does say that the city council “shall establish” an oversight committee, but no such committee currently exists. Parra said he does not see a need for one because the tax revenue collected is such a small amount and really only goes toward officer salaries.

“You’d have a meeting just to have a meeting,” Parra said.

The path to passage

Fresno County Clerk and Registrar of Voters James Kus said that in situations like Measure O, when the results are so close, “it’s all about the math.” The state elections code provides limited instruction on how exact a “two-thirds” majority needs to be when expressed as a percentage, and so even one vote could swing the outcome to being under or over two-thirds, Kus said. 

There is not a lot of opportunity for the Measure O outcome to change with a recount, Kus said. During the recount process, the election office will look at various things that may have been missed during the vote count, including incorrectly counted votes, undervotes and signature verifications and postmarks.

Out of 530 votes cast for the measure — a turnout of just 16.5% of registered voters in Orange Cove — 178 of them were against the measure and 352 were for the measure. The county also recorded eight undervotes, meaning that an Orange Cove voter submitted a ballot and voted for other contests but did not weigh in on Measure O.

If one of the votes against the measure was changed to being for the measure, that would put the outcome to 353 “yes” votes out of 530 total votes, which would be at least 66.6% of the vote, but Kus said that’s highly unlikely.

A vote that was electronically counted as being against the measure could theoretically turn out to be a vote in favor of the measure during the recount process; however, Kus said the county bought new ballot tabulation systems four years ago and “those machines have been perfect.” 

When looking at undervotes, Kus said it’s possible that a recount could find that the voter did in fact vote for the measure, but it’s still not very probable.

“Maybe one or two of those was just really faintly marked…a machine can’t tell voter intent,” Kus said. 

Measure O would need at least three more votes in favor, and no votes against, to pass the two-thirds threshold, because 355 “yes” votes out of 533 total votes would be at least 66.6% of the vote.

With such a close election, Orange Cove is opting to first request a recount because it is much cheaper than holding another election. 

Kus said that it’s difficult to come up with the exact cost of a recount before it’s completed because the cost will vary depending on how complex the recount is and how long it takes. His best estimate for the cost of a Measure O recount was between $3,000 and $6,000, depending on what the request was specifically for. 

If the recount leads to a change in the measure’s outcome — if it finds votes that allow the measure to pass — the requester will be reimbursed for the recount cost, Kus said.

The recount will take place at the Fresno County Election Warehouse in Fresno, beginning at 9 a.m. on April 10.

Serena Bettis
General Assignment Reporter