I was pleased to hear that, at its Jan. 8 meeting, the City Council unanimously approved cancellation of landscape and lighting district assessment proceedings. As I discussed in a previous column, the process was flawed for a variety of reasons involving both the disclosure and the process.
Unfortunately, the city still is not in compliance with Proposition 218 requirements, so we will undoubtedly face another balloting process in the future. I would like to offer several suggestions to improve the next attempt at dealing with this matter.
Based on the city’s disclosure, some property owners pay $12.38 per year while others pay $81.69 annually. The city claimed that, because Proposition 218 requires that everyone pay the same rate, those who pay $12.38 should pay $81.69. However, the city never stated how the $81.69 rate was arrived at or whether that amount is justified.
Using layman’s terms, the city needs to explain to all property owners exactly how the rate was determined. This probably involves providing several years of historical information about the streetlight fund including the fund’s revenues and expenditures. It also should discuss what portion of the streetlight costs, if any, were paid out of the city’s general fund.
The next important aspect of the disclosure is the budget for future expenditures for at least the next five years. Such disclosure should provide sufficient detail to give the property owner an understanding of the nature of the direct expenditures for lighting and the level of administrative costs being incurred.
Finally, a breakdown should be provided indicating what portion of these costs will be borne by residential property owners. That amount should be divided by the number of residential parcels to determine the amount that each residential property will be charged.
This breakdown is likely analyzed in the engineering report. The previous engineering report data provided to voters was incomprehensible. The engineering report needs to be explained simply, without excessive jargon.
Because cumulative inflation since 2006 (the last time the tax was increased) has been significantly less than 560 percent (the rate of the proposed increase), my guess is that this analysis will demonstrate that the appropriate amount to charge is higher than $12.38, but lower than $81.69.
Once the amount is determined, the election process must be improved.
First, every property owner in each lighting district, regardless of what they currently pay, must be sent a ballot and each ballot must be identical.
Second, if changes are simultaneously made to assessments for landscape maintenance districts, those must be separate measures. Combining the measures into a single vote clearly frustrates the intent of Proposition 218 and can skew the results. In the general elections when we vote on propositions and other measures, each measure is voted on separately. Santa Clarita property owners are sufficiently sophisticated to consider each measure separately and will not be confused as the city previously intimated.
Finally, builders who are developing housing that is not yet completed should not be allowed to vote because they are not the ones who will be paying the tax and they are incentivized to stay in the city’s good graces by voting in favor of the measure.
The Proposition 218 statement of drafter’s intent (i.e., the rules setting forth how Prop. 218 will be administered) require that a public hearing be held no earlier than 45 days from the date a letter informing property owners is sent and the ballots must be tabulated “at the end of the public hearing.”
This is an unfortunate set of rules because (i) it fails to provide a period of time for voters to intelligently consider the implications of the disclosure at the public hearing and (ii) many voters will only be able to cast their votes before the hearing is conducted.
To circumvent these problems, the city should consider establishing a website where questions are asked and the city provides meaningful answers. This, of course, requires a heretofore unseen level of transparency, but such transparency is what 21st century stakeholders have come to expect.
If the City Council approves the ballot process, they should be able to explain the measure in reasonable detail to the voters and be able to answer questions about it. This ensures that council members fully understand the measure and have appropriately considered the taxpayers’ interests.
Some may say that the steps I have outlined above are impossible to implement or perhaps fail to comply with all legal aspects of the process. Maybe so, but unless these steps (or similar steps) are implemented, voters will not pass the measure.
Jim de Bree is a semi-retired CPA who resides in Valencia.