SANTA CLARITA — David Turk doesn't like what he's learned about the annual fee he pays for school construction. Neither do some of his neighbors.
As members of the Northbridge community, a new housing tract on the city's northern edge, they pay hundreds of dollars each year to a tax assessment district established by the Newhall Land and Farming Co. Turk pays $1,100 a year.
Turk and other Northbridge homeowners are concerned that the school system is using the revenue from the tax district, called a Mello-Roos district, to build a new junior high school on the other side of the Santa Clarita Valley.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't pay. I'm saying make it fair," Turk said. "When I pay that Mello-Roos, I want it to go where we are."
But school officials say the tax is being spent fairly. Although recent changes to Mello-Roos laws require that the taxes directly benefit those paying them, the Northbridge district was established in 1988, and William S. Hart Union High School District officials say they are not bound by the later amendments.
"With the limited amount of money coming in (for schools), it's totally impractical to say it has to be spent here or spent there," said Bill Maddigan, director of business services for the Hart district. "It would be very easy to get provincial about it. It just doesn't always reconcile with the big picture."
The complaints by Northbridge residents about the Mello-Roos district underscore typical confusion about how such districts operate and what they are meant to accomplish. At school board and City Council meetings it is not unusual to hear residents and public officials engage in heated debate over the districts and how the money they generate is to be spent.
Commonly called Mello-Roos districts after two state lawmakers who wrote the legislation authorizing their creation, such districts are used to pay for public improvements, such as roads or schools. Mello-Roos districts raise money through selling bonds, which are later paid off by property owners within the district, often over a decade or more.
The districts have been widely used in the Santa Clarita Valley, which experienced explosive growth in the 1980s.
Northbridge's Mello-Roos is in place for 20 to 25 years, depending on how quickly it takes for the community to be completed. There are now 600 houses and plans for 1,800 overall. Residents pay based upon the size of their home, with most charged $700 to $1,100 per year.
The Mello-Roos district encompassing Northbridge has raised $5.8 million for the William S. Hart Union High School District and $4.8 million for the Saugus Union School District.
Northbridge residents say the Hart district's use of their Mello-Roos fees may be legal, but it's definitely not fair. Some say their real estate agents gave them a different impression of how the district worked.
"We were told it was going to our schools and our neighborhoods," said Janel Phillips, who bought her Northbridge home three years ago.
The Hart district is paying for more than half the cost of the $12.8-million junior high school, with the majority of the funds coming from the Northbridge Mello-Roos district. The unnamed school is scheduled to open in the fall of 1994 on a 25-acre site near Via Princessa and Rainbow Glen Drive. It is designed for an enrollment of 1,000.
"We're really dealing with a school system, so anything we build will help the system as a whole," Maddigan said.
The existing Arroyo Seco, Placerita and Sierra Vista junior high schools are each packed with 150 to 450 students beyond their designed capacity of 1,000 students.
Northbridge residents say the Hart district's use of their Mello-Roos fees may be legal, but it's definitely not fair.
Northbridge residents demonstrated that displeasure during a June bond election held by the Saugus district. The polling place near Northbridge was the only one of 18 Santa Clarita precincts that failed to pass the $10.2-million bond measure by the necessary two-thirds vote.
Measure S secured 77.6% of the 6,039 votes cast overall, but only 51.4% of the 210 votes cast at the polling place near Northridge.