For years, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has mailed out fliers soliciting donations because its Holy Grail, the 1978 Proposition 13 limit on property taxes, was allegedly under fire. Those claims have usually been alarmist fantasy, as no one seriously threatened to raise taxes on residential property above the current levels, commonly based on one percent of the most recent purchase price for any property.
But when the Jarvis association, named for the late anti-tax gadfly who co-authored Proposition 13, sends out its appeal this year, it will have a point.
For there’s a serious effort afoot in Sacramento to erode the two-thirds vote requirement needed to pass new local taxes anywhere in California. Similarly, there’s now sentiment against the requirement for a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to put any new tax proposal onto the ballot for voter consideration.
Erosion of the two-thirds standard actually began in 2000, when voters by a narrow margin passed Proposition 39, an initiative allowing school construction bonds to pass with only a 55 percent majority, rather than two-thirds.
Since then, most school bonds proposed by districts around the state have passed, adding substantially to property tax bills.
Now comes a proposal floated in the state Senate to set the same standard for approval of local fees dedicated to fire protection. This one was spurred by the windblown wildfires that singed much of San Diego County last year. The Senate effort also seeks a November popular vote on a measure charging fire protection and prevention fees for each parcel in new developments on lands that were wild until recently.
“Local jurisdictions need a fighting chance to raise the revenues they need for firefighting,” says Democratic state Sen. Christine Kehoe of San Diego County. She’s right. They do. And not just in San Diego County, but everywhere.
What no one needs, however, is more parcel taxes. These are the most regressive of levies, setting a particular amount to be paid by the owner of each piece of property in the affected area. So a shopping mall pays the same as the owner of a two-bedroom house. The owner of a 33,000 square foot McMansion pays the same as the owner of a house less than one-twentieth the size. A gas station pays the same as a big box store like Wal-Mart or Costco.
That’s unfair by any standard. But Proposition 13 offers small property owners some protection, with its two-thirds vote requirement. But even it has not stopped many school districts from getting the needed supermajority, especially in districts where apartment dwellers outnumber homeowners. Parcel taxes are particularly attractive to school districts because they must share ordinary property tax increases with other districts around the state under the 1971 Serrano vs. Priest court decision giving poorer school districts a share of money raised in wealthy ones. By contrast, parcel taxes stay right where they are levied.
But cities, counties, and fire protection districts have no similar excuse for seeking parcel taxes, with their well-documented inequities. Nobody forces them to send any property tax increase elsewhere.
If Kehoe is right in asserting that “the public realizes more has to be done on fire prevention and suppression,” there are other ways to do it besides parcel taxes. And there are other ways to do it besides dunning only new development.
Yes, new developments in wild areas should be assessed for their own protection. But so should owners of properties in fire-prone areas that are already developed. Like buyers of outlying new homes and commercial structures, they knew they were buying in perilous places. Of course, parcel taxes in freshly-built areas are also unfair, with single family homeowners paying the same as owners of shopping centers and office buildings.
The answer to this dilemma is the old-fashioned assessment district. If enough property owners in any particular area agree that firefighting efforts need more money for new equipment and personnel, they will vote to set up such a district, where properties can be assessed new fees according to their value, not one price tag fits all.
Any such district could also assess some owners less than others if they clear brush and use other fire-safe materials in their roofing, walls, and out-structures.
But parcel taxes are plain unfair, and any move to lower the threshold of voter approval needed to okay them would simply further an injustice.