As part of my journey to better understand the different factors that have gone into the upcoming ballot measure, I reached out to the CCSD General Manager with questions around some of the things I’ve heard from different parts of the interested community.
One of the primary issues relates to taxation approach to funding the firefighter positions. I took a few questions (formed from reading and hearing thoughts from vocal community members) and posed them to the GM. He directed me to Legal Counsel for specific details. I submitted my questions in an email and received the following response from David Hirsch, an attorney who works with District Counsel Tim Carmel. Mr. Hirsch’s answers are BOLDED.
Parcel Tax – Legal Edition
The questions I posed fell into two buckets.
Bucket A: Parcel Tax
- Why was the method of seeking revenue through parcel taxes done the way it has been done?
- What law, statute or other governing rules make this approach legal and compliant?
- Why would this issue not be addressed through different means, such as a 218?
Mr. Hirsch responded (some editing for brevity)
“The answer to your questions, in large measure, is that the special tax is something that is expressly authorized by and consistent with the requirements of Proposition 218. Proposition 218 was a voter approval protection initiative that added provisions to the California Constitution. It created a requirement that special taxes, such as the CCSD’s parcel tax measure that will be on the June ballot, are subject to a supermajority vote that requires two-thirds voter approval. A provision in the statutes that govern community services districts, Government Code Section 61121, expressly authorizes the CCSD to levy special taxes.”
He continues, ” Proposition 218 also addresses and creates procedural requirements and restrictions on other forms of local agency revenues, such as fees and assessments. Those types of revenues are not an appropriate source to fund the three-firefighter positions that the special tax will address. Fees relate to services such as water or sewer and are restricted to the cost of providing those services. Assessments require that there be a special benefit to the assessed property. The higher level of staffing of fire response vehicles will provide a general benefit to the entire community and therefore cannot easily be funded through an assessment process. Therefore, although it requires meeting the high threshold of a two-thirds vote of the electorate, the special tax was deemed the most appropriate way to provide the needed funding for the three-firefighter positions.”
This second section of questions is less rooted in law and more in the application.
Bucket B: Fairness
- There are many views on the “fairness” of taking a path that excluded many property owners being able to vote on the tax. The ones that rise to the top of the list posit that all property owners should have the right to vote on issues that directly affect them, and will (if successful) impose costs on them.
- Renters are given the opportunity to tax property owners. Many rental properties have multiple tenants, which can dramatically up the number of votes per property.
- Taxing those with higher equity in town (homes or other structures) the same as those with much less (vacant parcels).
- Parcel owners who reside elsewhere receive no benefit but are burdened with the costs of the proposed tax.
- Some citizens have mentioned that in the past they were mailed a ballot and could cast a vote on issues like this. Is that not doable under the approach that has been taken?
“… You note that ‘There are many views on the “fairness’ of taking a path that excluded many property owners being able to vote on the tax.” I can certainly appreciate your point; however, fundamentally the fairness question is a policy issue with regard to how the special tax was structured. The previously noted Section of the Government Code that authorized seeking approval for the special tax also provides that “…The special taxes shall be applied uniformly to all taxpayers or all real property within the district, except that unimproved property may be taxed at a lower rate than improved property.”
“…the CCSD’s Board of Directors looked at options that included only taxing improved property. They ended up deciding, within their sound discretion, to submit a measure to the voters that would assess a uniform amount on all parcels in the District.
“… certainly there are many examples that can be cited where taxes are deemed unfair to some but nonetheless are lawfully imposed. You noted that renters are able to vote on taxes that their absentee, property owner landlords have to pay. Other examples include transient occupancy taxes paid by folks staying at hotels that are voted upon by the communities residents and not those that are taxed. Likewise, owners of vacation homes who reside elsewhere and are not registered voters in Cambria will not be able to vote on the tax, although they certainly will benefit from its passage. Other examples of unfairness include Mello-Roos special taxes, which often are created by one landowner, a developer, but subsequently are paid by the future residents of the property, and school taxes paid by retirees with no children in the school system. Unfortunately, often the nature of taxation is such that there is some element of unfairness, however, how the tax is structured is a policy question best left to the elected officials who must take responsibility for seeking its approval. “
” You also mentioned that some citizens have said that they were mailed a ballot and could cast a vote on issues like this and asked whether that could be done for the Cambria’s firefighters special tax measure. Those folks may have been referring to an assessment district ballot process, which as noted, is not an appropriate mechanism to fund the three-firefighter positions. Otherwise, if they were referring to a mailed ballot election, while there are procedures to have such elections (they are significantly more expensive), Cambria’s measure will be on the regular June 2018 ballot and voters will need to go to the polls to cast their vote or vote by absentee ballot.”
So, there we have it – a detailed response to a sampling of the comments and questions heard around town. Perhaps this will provide clarity to some; maybe it will raise more questions from many. Knowledge is power. The quest for accurate and honest information can feel like the hunt for the Golden Fleece. Accurate and honest answers can keep us from feeling like the fleeced.
In the next edition I sit down with CFD Chief William Hollingsworth to get a better sense of the true need for the proposed staffing levels. I also visited Cal Fire Station 10 and had a brief conversation with the Captain on duty.