More than 60% of the business owners in a downtown Ventura commercial district have withheld the special assessment tax for rejuvenating the corridor, saying that the city forced the plan on them and that they cannot afford more taxes.
City officials said that over 60% of the more than 400 businesses in the Ventura Business Improvement District missed the March 15 payment deadline. As of late Tuesday, 168 businesses had paid a total of $19,078 in assessments, said Carol Green, assistant to the city manager.
The response falls far short of the $86,000 in expected taxes that the city wants to use to attract business to the sagging downtown business center. City officials said they have yet to decide if or how they might force the delinquent business owners to cough up an average of $275 a year in special assessments.
Downtown business owners said they will not pay the special assessment and vow to take the fight to City Hall or to the courthouse if necessary.
"I'm not paying until they take me to court," said Sheila Clancy, owner of Antique Paradise on Oak Street. "Everyone is hurting and it doesn't make sense that they should tax us more."
Frank Toms of Frank's Furniture on East Main Street said some people paid out of fear, but he is not one of them. "Any time you get a bill from the government you feel like you have to pay," Toms said. "I won't, particularly when I get called names for standing up for my beliefs."
A few business owners said they resent the tax bill because city officials never took the time to explain to them directly how the district was formed or how to dissolve it. "I don't owe them anything," said Debbie Ellison, owner of Ms. Teagarden, a South Oak Street antique store.
Earlier this year, the City Council approved spending plans for the tax assessment district that bills business owners twice a year and then turns the money over to a 21-member board overseeing the Downtown Ventura Image Program.
If the city can collect all of the taxes, the board plans to spend, among other priorities, $19,780 for a public relations campaign to improve downtown's image, $6,880 to beef up security, $7,740 to build information kiosks and signs, $6,880 to recruit new businesses into the area, and $8,600 for special events.
But some business owners question the motives of the district's supporters, saying they are not really interested in helping attract more customers to downtown businesses.
"It has to do with gentrification," Toms said. He said some investors want to buy run-down real estate in the commercial corridor, remodel it and raise the rents. He said rumors have been swirling about those who want to use the district to hike rents.
Meanwhile, the city is pressing ahead with billing and will soon begin dealing with the delinquencies as established by the city ordinance that formed the district.
Penalties accrue at a rate of 10% per month for six months, said Everett Millais, Ventura's community development director. At first, he said, the city will allow the board to contact business owners about delinquencies.
If the board is unsuccessful in its efforts, the city will pursue collection on a case-by-case basis, he said. The pursuit may be in the form of letters and may include small claims court, Millais said. "If it gets to that point, the city may have to consider the future of the district. However, we will continue collecting until that's decided."
Under the ordinance, the assessment district can be dissolved if businesses that contribute at least 51% of the taxes file a petition to have it disbanded. But this process could not begin before December, Millais said.
Dee Frisbie, president of the district's board and owner of Shakey's pizzeria, faulted the city's billing process for the delinquent payments. He said he knows of at least four people who never received a bill.
Frisbie said he and other board members will begin knocking on doors of the district's business owners as soon as he gets information from the city about overdue assessments.