SAN MARINO — City officials expressed relief this week that the state Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of a special tax approved by voters for police and fire protection, saying that the ruling came at just the right time.
Officials had hoped for a ruling before Nov. 4, when voters will be asked for the fourth time since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 to dip into their pockets for police and fire protection.
"I am delighted with the decision, and I think it will enhance our chances to renew the tax," said Benjamin Hammon, who has served on the City Council since the first tax was approved in 1980.
"If just a single person might have been confused by the issue of constitutionality, this helps," he said. "When you need a two-thirds vote for passage, you need every vote."
"I am delighted that it (the ruling) came at a good time since we are going to the voters again," said Mayor Rosemary Simmons. "It lends credence to the fact that we are not doing anything in opposition to Proposition 13."
The current police and fire assessment will continue until next June. However, city officials have decided to ask the voters to renew the $6.2-million measure in November so that if the ballot measure fails, it can be resubmitted before the assessment expires.
If the measure passes, the assessment will continue through June, 1991.
Attorney Philip Heckendorn, a San Marino resident who filed the lawsuit against the city that led to the Supreme Court decision, said he could not comment on the decision because he had not read it.
Heckendorn had argued that because the tax was based on zoning classifications determined by lot size, it violated the Proposition 13 prohibition against special taxes based on property values.
The city is divided into seven zones, and property within each zone is taxed at the same rate.
The city won a dismissal of the challenge in Los Angeles Superior Court earlier this year. However, the state Court of Appeal reinstated the suit, saying Heckendorn should be given a chance to prove that the levy was an ad valorem tax--one based on the value of the property.
The Supreme Court justices unanimously rejected that contention on Monday.
"The decision was timely because the formula in the November measure is identical to the formula in the 1983 measure" under which the tax currently is imposed, said Howard Privett, a former councilman and attorney who defended the city.
Ben Austin, an anti-tax crusader and author of the ballot argument against the measure that will be sent to voters before the November election, could not be reached for comment.
Austin, who has fought, sometimes successfully, against a series of special taxes sought by the city since Proposition 13 was approved, cited in his ballot argument the possibility that the state Supreme Court might rule the tax unconstitutional.
Settles the Issue
School officials, who have tried twice unsuccessfully in the past year to get voters to approve additional funding for schools, said they were glad the legality of special taxes had been established.
"The ruling would not have affected us because we had proposed a flat fee," said school board President Mary Snaer. "But it does help because it gets the issue of constitutionality settled so it can't be raised by an opponent again."
San Marino officials have appealed to voters for additional funds five times since the passage of Proposition 13, which limited the amount of money cities could collect in property taxes.
In June, 1980, voters in this affluent community of 13,750 agreed to assess themselves for three years for police and fire protection.
A measure to continue that levy for another three years was put on the ballot in November, 1982, but was defeated by 240 votes. In June, 1983, it was resubmitted to the voters, 80% of whom approved it.
When the financially strapped school district attempted to raise funds by the same method in November, 1985, it was defeated. A similar assessment failed to get the required two-thirds vote again last June. School board members have no immediate plans to try again.
The police and fire assessment would levy an annual parcel tax of between $188 and $564 on each property owner, depending on lot size.
The tax would finance 55% of the Police Department's $1.7-million budget and 59% of the Fire Department's $1.3-million budget.