MEASURE E: Businesses and the bottom line
Alameda voters are being asked to decide whether to replace the Island’s existing school parcel taxes with a replacement tax that is expected to generate $14 million for Alameda’s schools. If the Measure E parcel tax is approved by voters, homeowners and owners of multi-unit buildings up to four units will pay $659 a year for the next eight years to fund schools, while commercial property owners and owners of multi-unit buildings with five units or more will pay 13 cents per square foot of lot per parcel. The mail-only ballot for Measure E is set to go out this week, and ballots are due in by June 22. The Island has put together a series of articles intended to flesh out issues associated with the tax.
Second of four parts.
Debbie George says she and other business and commercial property owners who have been fighting the school district’s Measure H and Measure E parcel taxes aren’t opposed to the idea of a parcel tax. They say they just want a tax that’s fair.
“I don’t think anybody is opposed to a parcel tax. This particular tax, it’s the way it’s structured,” said George, who owns Pillow Park Plaza with her husband, Frank.
George said she’s not against schools and that she never wanted efforts to pass a tax to fund the schools to turn into a battle between business owners and residents. But she says that the existing Measure H parcel tax places an unfair burden on business owners, and on small business owners in particular. And the Georges don’t think Measure E, which would charge two cents a square foot less than Measure H, is much better.
They are part of a group of about 200 commercial property and business owners that have banded together to fight the taxes, politically and in court.
Some business and commercial property owners who oppose the tax say they want the school district to engage in the same belt-tightening that they have. Business has been way down, forcing some to lay off employees and to consider other cost-cutting tactics. And they are frustrated that in many cases, they are being asked to pay more to help local schools than the homeowners who are more likely to use them – and many commercial property and business owners won’t get a vote.
Others nurse a white-hot anger aroused by the passage of Measure H in 2008, over what they believe is the willful failure of school district officials and other proponents of the tax to hide its full impact on businesses and commercial property owners. And some small business owners believe the authors of the Measure H and Measure E taxes wrote it to avoid angering bigger businesses, at their expense.
In the wake of Measure H’s passage, opponents filed a lawsuit claiming the tax is illegal because it’s not uniformly applied. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Mark Burr is expected to rule against the litigants, though their attorney, David Brillant, has said he will appeal that ruling. And the litigants and their supporters are convinced they will win their appeal. (District officials have said they believe the tax is legal.)
If Measure E passes, George said that legal efforts to get rid of the tax will continue.
Owners of roughly three-quarters of the commercial parcels in town will pay more than homeowners under Measure E, while owners of about 16 percent of the parcels will pay the full $9,500 ceiling for their parcels, an analysis of tax records conducted by The Island showed. Residential property owners will pay $659 a year for the next eight years if E passes, while commercial property owners pay 13 cents per square foot of lot on each parcel, with a ceiling of $9,500.
“I’m just in for whatever’s fair,” said Michael Wright, who owns Fort Knox of Alameda on Park Street.
Wright was one of the few business owners contacted by The Island who was willing to talk on the record – or at all – for this story (and in fairness, Wright said he didn’t know much about the tax). One other business owner asked The Island not to use his name in the story because he fears his business will be boycotted if he tells his story publicly.
Even the local business associations are steering clear of saying no: The West Alameda Business Association and the Alameda Chamber of Commerce stopped short of saying they oppose the ballot measure, while the Park Street Business Association hasn’t taken a position on Measure E at all. (The Greater Alameda Business Association chose to remain neutral on the issue, because their mission is not political but informational, project and event coordinator Patty Jacobs said.)
Still, some business owners support Measure E. Kate Pryor, who owns Tucker’s Ice Cream, said that while times are tough for small businesses, Alameda’s schools need the money to continue providing a good education.
“I hire a lot of high school kids. I want to make sure they’re well educated,” Pryor said. “That’s a very small price to pay for a quality education.”
Other business owners, like Gene Oh at Alameda Bicycle, have also voiced support for Measure E.
The Georges have been some of the most vocal opponents of both Measure H and Measure E, though Debbie George said they don’t oppose the schools – they just wish the tax was written differently.
But for George’s husband, Frank, it’s more personal. A native Alamedan, Frank George lists his accomplishments, including high school football championships and track records, and his history of helping out the community and the schools. But he feels like the district and Measure H proponents pulled “a dirty trick” on him and other business owners by putting a tax forward that placed most of its burden on them.
His position on the tax has stirred the ire of more than a few angry parents, some of whom he said have confronted him in his store to tell them what they think of his views. In the meantime, business at his store has fallen off to the point that he and his wife will be renting out part of their space, they said, though they blamed the economy and not backlash over parcel taxes.
Frank George said he’d prefer to see a flat tax, or a per-square-foot tax that’s the same for everyone. When asked if he would support an earlier proposal that would cost every property owner 13.7 cents per square foot of land – which district officials said would generate the $14 million they say they need – he said that was “way too high.” He said he though a tax of 1.5 cents to two cents would give the district the money it needs, and that the district could make more cuts.
“I want to work with (the school district). They never came to us to work something out,” he said, referring to an earlier settlement offer the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit made.
Frank George said that if the school district loses the lawsuit, they will have to find a way to pay back the taxes they’ve already collected. He said losing the suit could force the district into worse jeopardy than it already faces, and maybe even force them to sell property they own to pay the taxes back.
“They’re showing irresponsibility. They made a bad decision,” Frank George said. “I feel bad. I really do.”
Wednesday: A busted budget