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A Tax by Any Other Name . . .

CALIFORNIA COMMENTARY

A November initiative will stop government from passing property taxes disguised as assessments.

May 29, 1996|JOEL FOX | Joel Fox is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn

Mad Assessment Disease has struck Los Angeles.

How else can you explain the rash of assessment notices popping up in our mailboxes and even more assessments suggested by our elected officials.

First there is the Los Angeles Community College Assessment. This assessment district is so wide that it covers more than a million pieces of property. The community college district plans to raise $200 million to maintain landscape and lighting and build recreation facilities. The district has a long list of recreation sites they want to work on and they'll make the decision once they have your money. Residential property is tagged for $12 a parcel.

You can't vote on this measure, but you can protest. Under the assessment law, a written protest by owners of more than half the assessable property will kill the project. That just won't happen, so the only way to stop it is to pressure the elected trustees of the district to vote no.

Meanwhile, the city of Los Angeles has jumped into the fray, sending out notices for a landscaping and lighting assessment to improve parks. This one is supposed to cost residential property an additional $18 a year. Please don't confuse this assessment with the one that already appears on your property tax bill. That is a county assessment for parks.

The city and community colleges haven't suddenly gone crazy over landscaping. Special assessments are a way to increase government revenue. If the assessments are adopted, money that used to be in the landscaping and lighting budget can be shifted to other sections of the budgets.

The city also is exploring a police assessment. Some city officials want to avoid the two-thirds vote requirement on special taxes that comes with a parcel tax, which is a tax on property.

Come to think of it, an assessment is a tax on property, too. Assessments appear on your property tax bill. And, like any property tax, if you don't pay it, government can put a lien against your house.

If Proposition 13 is supposed to protect against increased property taxes, how are these assessment districts possible?

It's because the California Supreme Court, in a 1992 case called Knox vs. Orland, decided that Proposition 13 just dealt with "taxes." It was silent on "assessments," so they could be raised, in most cases, without a vote of the people.

Trouble is, assessments pass the duck test. You know, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. Well, an assessment is money out of your pocket and it's levied against your property, so it's a property tax, pure and simple.

True assessment districts go back to ancient Roman roads and English sea walls, when neighbors got together to pay for capital improvements that benefited their property.

The benefit that some modern assessments have, though, is bogus. Take the argument put forth by community college district officials. They claim that the benefit attributed to property will come with increased values. No right-minded real estate authority will ever testify that a property value has increased because a community college 20 miles away has a lighted football field.

The connection between property benefits and police goes beyond the pale. Police services are a general service to the entire community and must be supported by taxes, not assessments. Police assessments are illegal.

Even if city officials conclude they cannot pursue a police assessment and settle for a police tax on the ballot, one has to wonder if the factions in City Hall are talking to one another. Putting both a police tax and a landscaping assessment on the same ballot probably will doom both.

Fortunately, there is an antidote for this Mad Assessment Disease. It's called the Right to Vote on Taxes Act sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. More than 1 million Californians signed petitions to place this initiative on the November ballot.

The proposal deals with all kinds of taxes, assessments and fees. For assessments, it states that property owners have to approve by a majority vote any assessment on their property. The idea is to make sure that these assessments are true benefit assessments, that they indeed benefit the taxed property.

Meanwhile, this new list of assessments will serve as kindling for the victory fire for the Right to Vote on Taxes Act this November.

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