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Council Backs Expanded Redevelopment : Thousand Oaks: City may incur $120-million debt load in the process of revitalizing blighted commercial strip.

June 04, 1993|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Thousand Oaks City Council, during an emergency meeting Thursday night, approved preliminary steps to expand its downtown Redevelopment Agency by incurring $120 million in debt to generate cash for revitalization projects.

The widely predicted 3-2 vote came two nights after the council deadlocked 2 to 2 on the issue when Councilman Frank Schillo left a meeting early. Mayor Judy Lazar called the special session to keep plans for the agency's expansion on schedule.

"We were all elected by and for the people of Thousand Oaks, and our responsibility is to do our best to make sure that every tax dollar you pay is fully utilized in this community, not spent somewhere else," Schillo said, explaining why he voted to expand the redevelopment agency.

The Thousand Oaks Boulevard Redevelopment Area, founded in 1979 and expanded twice since then, encompasses the city's main commercial strip, including the Auto Mall and Janss Mall. It also jogs up Moorpark Road to take in Thousand Oaks High and two elementary schools.

The Redevelopment Agency collects property taxes from parcels in the area and passes a percentage on to the county, the park and school districts, and the library. Of the remainder, 20% must be used to support affordable housing and the rest is spent on improvements in the project area.

Rather than wait for property taxes to trickle in, the agency can raise quick cash for sprucing up the boulevard by issuing bonds to be paid back over the decades with tax revenues. Whenever the agency issues bonds, it goes further into debt.

Thursday's action sets in motion a complicated process to extend the Redevelopment Agency's life to the year 2023 and triple the agency's debt limit to $120 million. A final hearing on the issue is scheduled for November.

During the heated 90-minute meeting, Schillo, Lazar and Councilman Alex Fiore argued that the higher debt limit was crucial to generate funds for a new auditorium at Thousand Oaks High School, a stadium at Westlake High School and improvements along the "blighted" boulevard.

Half a dozen high school students and several teachers urged the council to extend the Redevelopment Agency to fund the long-promised theater and athletic facilities, which together will cost upward of $3 million.

But Councilwoman Elois Zeanah, on the brink of tears as she explained why she voted against the majority, insisted that the council could find money for the school auditoriums elsewhere, without going further into debt. "I am embarrassed that the city is holding two school facilities hostage," she said, her voice breaking.

Both sides sought to position themselves as true advocates for the taxpayer.

Zeanah and Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski, who cast the other no vote, argued that redevelopment agencies gobble up property-tax dollars that would otherwise support vital services, such as firefighting and flood control. The result: new assessment districts, including the county's proposed $110-per-parcel fire protection fee.

Speaking for the majority, Schillo countered that tax dollars were best spent at the most local level, on projects that would improve property values throughout the community.

In addition, City Manager Grant Brimhall said Thousand Oaks taxpayers transfer a substantial amount--$42 million a year--to the county and do not get their fair share of services for the contribution.

"I don't want to give them another dime of our money," said Steve Rubenstein, president of the Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce, who spoke in favor of extending the Redevelopment Agency. "Our money has been blown out and pissed away more than once by the county. When we keep it here, we have proof of where it has gone and what it does."

BACKGROUND

To form a redevelopment project, a city council must certify an area as blighted. The council can issue bonds to generate cash for improving the area. The debt on those bonds is then paid off over several decades with property taxes collected on businesses or homes in the area. The redevelopment agency collects property taxes based on the tax increment, or the annual increase in property value as compared with a base year. It then doles out the money for improvement projects and affordable housing. A certain percentage also goes to other agencies, such as county government and school or park districts.

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