Oxnard City Council members Tuesday dissolved an assessment district designed to promote the city's beleaguered downtown because the ordinance establishing it contains one incorrect word.
City Atty. Gary L. Gillig, who revealed the flaw in the district's enabling ordinance in January, told the council that the district could not withstand a legal challenge as it is written and so it is unenforceable.
The council also voted to return $34,532 in fees collected so far by the district to stage advertising campaigns, festivals and other efforts to upgrade the downtown area's image.
'It's a Shame'
"I don't think we had a choice," Councilman Manuel M. Lopez said after the meeting. "If anyone objected to paying the assessment they didn't have to. You can't have a district that way. It's a shame."
The fatal flaw in the ordinance was that it cited a 1965 state code describing the assessment as a "tax." Proposition 13, the law that forbids cities to raise property taxes without an election, ruled out such taxes in 1978.
But a law passed a year later reinstituted the districts by describing their fees as "assessments."
Council members were pessimistic about the likelihood of reviving the district because of opposition that has steadily grown against its fees since it was approved a little more than a year ago.
Since then, more than half of the downtown's 450 businesses have refused to pay the assessments, which ranged from $33 to $300.
The district was approved with the support of only slightly more than 20% of merchants, the minimum allowable, said Steve Kinney, the director of Oxnard's Redevelopment Agency.
He said he thinks that the Downtown Oxnard Business Improvement Assn., the organization that had positioned itself to receive the funds, might be successful if it reintroduces the district in a year or two.
By then,, the Oxnard Redevelopment Agency will have opened a children's museum and a business complex created from historic homes, which may in turn build support for further revitalization efforts, he said.
The assessment district had been billed as the extension of redevelopment efforts in the flagging area where merchants banded together two years ago to roll back a pedestrian mall that had choked off business on A Street for 18 years.
Such districts now exist in 100 to 150 California cities, according to David Kilbourne, a Chico businessman and a past president of the California Downtown Assn., which advises businesses on how to revive blighted downtowns.
"If the opposition would let these people function for 24 months, they'd probably be pleasantly surprised," he said.
Behrens' Memory Invoked
At Tuesday's meeting, assessment supporters begged council members to allow them to do just that by invoking the memory of Al Behrens, a former A Street shop owner who became the patron saint of revitalization in downtown Oxnard. He pushed to have the mall removed and an assessment district established, but died last June.
"The city can save this district," said B. T. Martin, the owner of a 6th Street printing shop and the president of the Downtown Oxnard Business Improvement Assn., "or it can treat Al Behrens' memory the same way Pontius Pilate treated Christ's."
But Gillig told the council that "there is no method by which the council can salvage the district. The government has to dot every 'i' and cross every 't.' "
The district's opponents, who appeared to outnumber supporters by a 5-1 margin at Tuesday's meeting, expressed relief at the council's decision.
"I think they finally have an idea of all the good reasons for disestablishing this district," said Lee Montemorra, who owns the Sportsmen's Exchange, a C Street gun shop, with her husband Anthony.
Opponents had questioned the authority of the Downtown Business Assn. They had contended that state code dictates that only the City Council could decide how the funds could be spent. City officials disagree.
Opponents had also questioned the need for the district, pointing out that much of downtown is occupied either by professionals or specialty shops that would not benefit from the retail-oriented campaigns planned by the association.
"People don't buy more firearms because there's a parade, a festival or coupons in the paper," Anthony Montemorra said in an interview.
But members of the business community said they will not be so easily discouraged. They vowed to continue paying into the district on a voluntary basis in the hopes of continuing the efforts of the Downtown Assn.
"People have paid hard cash to reopen A Street . . . and they're not going to walk away from that investment," said Dana Young, president of the Oxnard Chamber of Commerce.