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Another Legacy of Proposition 13--A Crazy Quilt of 'Cocoon' Citizens : Government: User fees and special taxes are the rage at the local level, but they undermine any sense of a broader community. It's 'us' vs. 'them.'

December 01, 1991|William Fulton | William Fulton is editor of the California Planning & Development Report and author of "Guide to California Planning" (Solano Press Books)

VENTURA, CALIF. — In need of revenue but unable to muster the political will to nick everybody in town, city officials in Port Hueneme recently came up with the idea of cleaning up their beach by taxing the people who look at it.

The "view tax," to be levied on owners of beachfront condos, was designed to raise $150,000 a year. So far, however, it has raised little more than a big ruckus. The condo owners were so mad they asked Joel Fox, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., to help. And before they knew it, members of the Port Hueneme City Council were getting hammered in Sacramento.

In a way, you really can't blame Port Hueneme for leaping at the possibility of any new revenue stream these days, especially if it targets taxpayers who everybody else loves to hate. As Pete Wilson is beginning to learn, you can't tax all the people all the time if you expect to retain any measure of political popularity. Yet 13 years of Proposition 13 has left most local governments without enough property-tax money to do their jobs, like building and maintaining roads, sewers, libraries and parks.

The local solution is to tax some of the people all the time. Using either development fees or special assessment districts, as in Port Hueneme, cities and counties typically dump the cost of community facilities on a politically vulnerable group, usually new homeowners or a high-profile group of supposedly wealthy taxpayers like beachfront condo owners. Then the local officials conduct financial studies to prove that the need for the tax was created by those footing the bill.

The appeal of these special taxes and fees cuts across the political spectrum, from Reaganaut conservatives to slow-growth environmentalists. But they also have a darker side: The rising popularity of these "growth taxes" is leading to a breakdown in community identity and the atomization of citizenship. Once your city requires you to pay an entry fee for schools, roads or the view, you're not likely to think of your community and its facilities in the same generous-spirited way that people used to. A public park becomes one bought and paid for by you and your neighbors.

The result is "cocoon citizenship." Homeowners identify only with those people who live in their tract, partly because tracts have been sliced like salami into incredibly narrow economic classes by market-savvy developers. It's the financial equivalent of a gated subdivision; broader community identification is shut out. Everybody inside the tract is "us," everybody outside is "them"--even if they live in the same city.

Nowhere is this atomization occurring more quickly than in the fast-growing Inland Empire. There, financially strapped school districts are obtaining new construction funds through growth taxes imposed on homebuyers in "Mello-Roos" taxing districts. These homeowners are often led to believe that the Mello-Roos taxes, which can cause a homeowner's property-tax bill to double, will allow the local school district to build schools in their neighborhood. Instead, the money is thrown into a big pot devoted to expanding classroom capacity districtwide. The result is that the Mello-Roos kids are frequently bused long distances to attend schools with kids whose parents live in older tracts and don't pay the Mello-Roos taxes. Enraged parents complain that their kids should not have to mingle those who come from lower taxpaying classes.

Obviously, these parents do not really expect "public" education. What they expect--and it's not surprising, given the way the Mello-Roos taxes are marketed by developers--is private education in their neighborhood, administered by a public school district. They paid their money. So, where's their school? This is not the kind of attitude that fosters community identification, especially in a just-constructed tract.

The irony is that the only way local officials can raise money is to play different groups of cocoon citizens off one another and, in doing so, fragment the community they claim to represent. The Port Hueneme view tax is, in many ways, a "welcome-stranger" tax, because many of the affected beachfront condos are owned by weekend residents. Whether true or not, the perception was that these taxes would be politically acceptable because the money would flow into Port Hueneme from the affluent San Fernando Valley.

But when cities try to gain political support for a growth tax by turning cocoon citizens against each other, they run the risk of turning the citizens against the city. Sadly, the only thing cocoon citizens mistrust more than each other is their government.

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