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Marblehead income tax continuance up to voters

MARBLEHEAD - Village residents apparently will decide the fate of a controversial income tax at the polls this fall.

The Ottawa County board of elections confirmed yesterday that petitions filed for a ballot initiative contained 68 valid signatures, well above the 41 needed to force a vote on the 1 percent tax in November.

To get an initiative or referendum on the ballot, proponents need at least 10 percent of the number of village residents who voted in the last gubernatorial election.

JoAnn Friar, elections director, said her office sent the petitions back to Marblehead village officials, who will review them once more before certifying the ballot issue.

“It's up to them to have it checked as far as sufficiency or validity,” Ms. Friar said. “Once they're satisfied ... they would send us a letter or resolution telling us to put it on the ballot.”

Nilene Imke, a former village clerk-treasurer who is leading a campaign to overturn the tax, said she is pleased that a vote will be held but feels that it should be a referendum rather than an initiative.

Under a referendum, collection of the tax, which took effect Jan. 1, would be halted until the election. But village officials refused to accept referendum petitions, saying that the tax's passage Dec. 14 as an emergency measure legally blocked such a vote.

“Since it was passed as an emergency resolution, it cannot be a referendum,” Ms. Friar said.

“The referendum petitions were not legal,” Marblehead Mayor Steve Plottner said. “The clerk-treasurer was obligated to return them to the initiator of the petitions.”

Mr. Plottner and most council members said the tax was necessary to maintain village services, replace aging equipment, and upgrade roads, sewers, and other infrastructure to handle the yearly influx of summertime tourists.

They said the money was needed because a ferry tax to raise money was defeated during a November referendum. Council passed the ferry fee in April, but opponents blocked collection by filing petitions for the referendum.

Mrs. Imke said she is consulting a lawyer and may challenge the village's rejection of the referendum petitions in court. Tax opponents, who formed a group called the Marblehead Community Action Committee, plan to meet Tuesday evening to discuss strategy, she said.

“We'll look at options, the cost of those options, and where we want to proceed from there,” she said. “There is case law that did permit referendums on emergency measures. And we did submit the referendum petitions based on that case law.”

She added, “The case law states that it's not an emergency just because council says it is.”

Mr. Plottner said he expects voters to uphold the tax but added that even if they don't, council can reinstate it.

“That ordinance, if it were passed [by voters], is subject to legislative action like any other legislation, and could be repealed by council,” he said. “I don't think it will come to that. I don't think there's enough votes in the village against the income tax, the reason being people know we need the money. We discussed it way back in May, 2000, and it was no surprise to most people.”

Mrs. Imke, who supported an income tax during her unsuccessful run for mayor against Mr. Plottner in 1999, said she objects to the measure's passage without the customary three readings before council.

“They should explain what they need it for and pass it the right way,” she said. “You have to know what you have and what you want it for. Not new projects. New projects are not an emergency.”

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