Last month, I received a ballot from the City of Santa Clarita asking me to vote on increasing my streetlight maintenance property tax assessment from $12.38 to $81.71. That was an increase of $69.33, or 560 percent of what I currently pay. An engineering report that was supposed to explain the increase accompanied the ballot.
In 1996, the city inherited a $12.38 maximum rate for streetlight assessments. Based on my property tax bills, the city only charged $3 for the next 10 years. Thus, if this measure is approved, from 2007 to 2019 the rates will rise from $3 to $81.69 — a 27-fold increase.
Apparently, when the city annexed property, it negotiated streetlight assessments with the owners of the annexed properties. Those owners are paying as much as $81.69.
Proposition 218 requires that all owners of property in the city pay the same rate. The city cannot raise the rate without a vote obtaining the approval of a majority of the affected property tax owners. Apparently 25,000 property owners currently pay the higher rate. The city was circulating a ballot to the remaining 33,000 owners who pay a lower rate.
During my career, I reviewed hundreds of proxy statements that were sent to shareholders to explain corporate measures requiring shareholder approval. Securities laws require that the measures be explained fully in an understandable manner.
In comparison to those proxy statements, the materials sent by the city were a confusing exercise in obfuscation.
Based on what I have pieced together, I find this endeavor by the city very troubling on many fronts.
First of all, the city has failed to adequately explain the situation to voters. The Proposition 218 statement of drafter’s intent (i.e., the rules setting forth how Prop. 218 will be implemented) states that “the engineer’s report and all other pertinent materials or public records must be made available to property owners for their review.” The city provided only the engineer’s report. In response to criticism, the city established a frequently asked questions page on its website. Unfortunately, that page fails to provide information needed to cast an enlightened vote.
In response, Alan Ferdman, board chair of the Canyon Country Advisory Committee, raised a number of unaddressed fiscal and procedural questions. His concerns are well founded, but too voluminous to discuss in detail here. Among his concerns are whether the $81.69 assessment is the correct amount and whether the city’s purported savings from implementing the measure will be achieved.
Another troubling aspect is that the only public hearing was scheduled for the evening of Jan. 22 — the date that ballots are due. Unfortunately, the Proposition 218 statement of drafter’s intent provides that a public hearing must be held no earlier than 45 days from the date the letter is sent and the ballots must be tabulated “at the end of the public hearing.”
Furthermore, the city decided to review both its streetlight maintenance and landscape maintenance fees simultaneously. The landscape maintenance fees for my district remain unchanged, so I only vote for a single item. However, I have been told that property owners who have changes to both maintenance fees are only allowed to cast a single vote for both measures. There is no way to vote on each assessment separately. Consequently, not everyone is voting on the same measure. Since a large number of owners will receive reductions in their landscape assessments exceeding the increase in their streetlight assessments, they are highly incentivized to vote in favor of the streetlight assessment.
One of the more troubling concerns is the lack of apparent oversight of the process by the City Council. On Nov. 13, the City Council approved the Proposition 218 election process. In its Dec. 13 edition reporting on a discussion of the topic at the Dec. 11 City Council meeting, The Signal stated, “…some council members said they were still confused.”
The Signal quoted Councilmember Laurene Weste as saying, “I got the ballot and was shocked. There’s just a real confusion and problem here. I need to see a lot more information and I need to understand it and our residents need to understand it.”
How could the City Council be confused about the measure after approving it? Either they did not pay sufficient attention to the matter or they were not provided adequate information by city staff to cast an informed vote.
I perceive that the city has kept me in the dark while asking me to vote on a tax increase. I voted no, but would be willing to reconsider the matter when all of the ramifications of the vote are explained to me and the voting process is not designed to produce the result desired by the city.
Hopefully the City Council understands this when they reconsider the matter at their Jan. 8 meeting.
Jim de Bree is a Valencia resident. Steve Lunetta’s column is scheduled to return next week.