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Updated: School board considers parcel tax plan

Submitted by on 1, January 13, 2010 – 6:00 amOne Comment

Updated 10:49 a.m. Wednesday, January 13

The Board of Education accepted recommendations Tuesday night on how a new parcel tax for Alameda’s schools should be structured and began the process of hashing out what it will take to gain voter approval.

Meanwhile, business owners who are suing the school district over the Measure H parcel tax insisted – as they have in their lawsuits – that a new tax that would offer different rates for homeowners and commercial property owners is against the law.

A parcel tax advisory group set up as part of a settlement agreement with John Beery, a local landowner and yacht merchant who sued the district in an effort to eliminate the Measure H parcel tax, recommended the Board of Ed put a new tax on the ballot that would offer a split roll for homeowners and commercial property owners, but would lower the percentage of tax money commercial property owners would pay. The new tax – which would replace both of the district’s existing parcel taxes – would do this in part by enacting a per-unit charge on apartments and other mutli-unit buildings, if the recommendations are followed.

While the group’s mandate did not include laying out dollar amounts that property owners would be asked to pay, Superintendent Kirsten Vital said the group did discuss what they thought voters might tolerate. Those dollar limits were $499 for homeowners, up to $250 per unit for multi-unit dwellings and 12 cents to 13 cents a square foot for commercial property owners, with a $5,999 cap.

Under Measure H, homeowners and owners of apartment buildings pay $120 a year, and commercial property owners, up to $9,500. Measure A charges a flat rate of $189. Ultimately, commercial property owners would bear a maximum of a quarter of the burden of the new tax under the recommendations. They currently bear 35 percent of the cost of Measures A and H, the district’s existing taxes, and 29 percent of the Island’s property is commercial property said Rob Siltanen, the district’s director of educational options.

Edward Hirshberg, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits filed against Measure H but not a member of the advisory group (he’s part of the Borikas case, which is still moving forward), insisted any new tax has to be uniform. (The judge handling the cases has so far indicated he doesn’t agree.) He also said he thought that a tax structured under the group’s recommendations would be unfair to small businesses.

“What’s been presented tonight is what got us into trouble in the first place,” Hirshberg said.

Beery, who called the group’s process “fun” and who insisted he got involved for the benefit of his grandchildren and to help the district, said he disagreed with much of the group on its recommendations and that he didn’t think they were legal. (Siltanen told the board how many people voted for and against each of the recommendations, but didn’t call out specifically who voted for what.) Beery said his attorneys came up with some other ideas – and suggested the district hire them.

UPDATE: School Board Vice President Mike McMahon has since put out an e-mail that says Beery proposed a flat assessment of 12 cents per square foot with a floor of $399 and a cap of $5,999 for all parcels, regardless of type.

But other group members said the board should adopt the recommendations, saying the district needs the money and that they need to find a way to get it that is palatable to voters.

“I believe you virtually have to consider all 12 recommendations, you can’t pick and choose. It’s important to consider all the elements in (this) for the correct balance,” said Mike Robles-Wong, who is president of the board of directors for the Community of Harbor Bay Isle homeowners association and was a member of the group.

The group opted not to recommend taxing homeowners based on the square footage of their home – parallel to a per-square-foot charge for commercial properties – which one member said would be a confusing, tough sell to voters. But they determined that any tax on commercial properties would need to be capped to placate those property owners.

Seamus Wilmot, who served on the group, said its members spent a long time talking about a per-unit “door tax” on multi-unit dwellings as a way to increase the district’s tax base. But board President Ron Mooney, a veteran of local parcel tax campaigns, said a consultant on a previous campaign said that such a tax is illegal.

The school board will also have to decide whether the new tax would be written to include money for the Island’s growing cadre of charter schools.

Mooney said the board will need to decide in late February whether it plans to put a new tax on the ballot in June. A district press release announcing the Beery settlement said the board would vote on whether to accept, reject or change the group’s recommendations on February 28.

Stay tuned.

One Comment »

  • Dave Kirwin says:

    Will AUSD use a poll to find out the likelihood of passing any new tax, what size tax might pass, or what are the important key expenses the tax should be spent on? Marketing this tax is the most important activity and the drafters of the Measure ought to know what is important to voters. I am glad there was a broad base committee discussing this tax, unlike MH, but discussions within a voluntary committee does not replace the information a proper poll would disclose if done by professionals.

    Personally I do not think an AUSD parcel tax has any chance of passing in the present economic climate and the devastating breech of public trust created by the BOE last spring.

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