Two words may cost $548 million? Find out why

Words are powerful, but rarely can you put a specific dollar value on them. Here’s a case where two words have put a chunk of change at stake: How about half a billion dollars?

Earlier this month, the Santa Clara Valley Water District in Northern California turned in a ballot proposal to put a $548 million tax measure before voters. When the group submitted the text of the proposal, it was 77 words. Unfortunately, proposal summaries can be no more than 75 words.

The Water District rushed an updated version to elections officials. The meeting to approve the new terms, however, was not publicized far enough in advance to meet requirements of California’s open meeting law, the Brown Act.  As a result, the Silicon Valley Taxpayers’ Association is threatening to sue unless the district pulls the measure off the ballot.

Linda LeZotte, the chairwoman of the Water District, told reporters that losing the proposal would be devastating for the district. “We were not changing the essence of the measure,” LeZotte said, “We were removing two innocuous words that mistakenly put us over the word count. It was a minor technicality.” The Water District’s full statement can be read here.

John Roeder, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers’ Association, felt otherwise. “We believe it’s a violation,” he said, “If they say, ‘OK, we’re sorry, we’ll take it off the ballot,’ then we won’t do anything more. But if they tell us, no, they’re right, then we’ll decide what steps to take after that.”

So what were the two offending words that may cost Santa Clary Valley Water District more than half a billion dollars? The two words that the Water District cut from the proposal in order to lower its word count to 75?  They were: “as” and “no.” (that is, the abbreviation for “number”). That’s it. “As” and “number.”

Sometimes words are more valuable than you expect. Can you think of other situations where semantic issues have cost you or others a hefty sum? Let us know, below.

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