School board holds parcel tax meet
Alameda’s Board of Education reached out to the public on Thursday night to gather input on how to structure the parcel tax they’d like to put on a March ballot – and got some advice on how to get voters to sign off on it.
Trustees Ron Mooney, Mike McMahon and Niel Tam said they’d prefer to move forward on a tax based on building square footage, which district officials said could be considered more equitable than a tax based on the size of a property owner’s lot. But with the first vote on a proposed tax little more than a month away, several other major issues – including the amount of the tax, whether it will have caps, how long it will last and who, if anyone, will be exempt from paying – have yet to be discussed.
Trustee Trish Hererra Spencer asked whether the district could consider a blended tax rate that combines lot and building square footage, as one attendee of Thursday’s meeting suggested. Trustee Tracy Jensen asked if other structures, such as a banded rate that changes as someone’s square footage increases, could be considered so property owners with big lots or industrial buildings don’t get hit with massive tax bills.
Superintendent Kirsten Vital said that if the district were seeking to collect $14 million – an amount she stressed she was using only as an example – they would need to charge 12.3 cents per square foot of lot or 31.7 cents per square foot of building to earn that amount.
McMahon said at a recent candidate forum he would support a tax of 20 cents to 25 cents per square foot of building for the tax, which would replace the district’s existing parcel taxes. But that amount would generate less than the $19 million the district anticipates it will have cut from its budget between this year’s cuts and those to come over the next two years.
Sean Svendsen, who runs Svendsen’s Boat Works, asked the board to consider capping the tax rate. He said Measure H – which is capped – increased his family business’s taxes by more than $30,000 a year, forcing him to let an employee go. Without a cap, he said his parcel tax bill would be $120,000 a year under the example Vital offered.
“I know that there’s a lot of people out here that want to tax the Safeways and the South Shore centers and the Trader Joes,” Svendsen said, referring to some property owners’ concerns that the Measure H cap favors Alameda Towne Centre. “If the goal is to go after the big corporate conglomerates, you are risking the livelihoods of many, many people, including me and my employees. The impact would be catastrophic without a cap.”
Alex Halperin asked if the board could consider a blended tax rate or a graduated rate that would protect businesses like Svendsen’s – and help get a tax passed.
“It seems pretty clear to me that we need to come up with a system that is going to address some of these outlier cases so people can’t wave their hands and say, ‘Look at this really unfair thing they created’ and use that as a weapon against the parcel tax,” Halperin said.
Speakers asked the board to consider other taxing options, including a payroll tax or an increase to property owners’ regular tax bill – options the district is legally barred from pursuing.
Some of the meeting’s roughly 60 attendees also said the district will need to do a better job of explaining why the district is facing the financial difficulties it’s facing, what the money collected through a parcel tax will pay for – and what the district will need to cut if a replacement tax isn’t passed.
“It seems like there’s a lot of confusion, and a lot people making up things and scaring people. I hear a lot of people make assertions, and they don’t back it up. And that just adds to the mess we’re in,” Charles Liuson said.
Liuson was one of several parents who got up to speak after a woman chastised trustees for failing to plan for a loss of state funds and to explain what they would do with money from a replacement tax.
Vital said the district lost $10 million in state funding over the last two years. “In California, we have not gone through what we’re going through right now since probably 1991-1992,” she said.
The board is slated to talk about what programs a parcel tax would fund at its October 26 meeting. District staff will make a recommendation on how a tax should be structured on November 9, and a final vote on putting a tax on the ballot is slated for November 30.
The district is seeking a tax to replace its existing Measure A and Measure H parcel taxes, both of which sunset at the end of 2012, and to help it fill a budget gap that will grow to $19 million by that date.
The school board cut $7.2 million this year, raising class sizes and cutting a week out of the school year after voters rejected the Measure E replacement parcel tax in June. District officials said they are looking at up to $5 million in cuts for next year and another $7 million in 2012 if its existing taxes lapse without a replacement.
Meanwhile, the district plans to start posting answers to parcel tax questions on their website, a process they hope will begin today.