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Obey the Spirit of Prop. 218: Turn Lights Off

Assessments: If property owners don't want to pay for city services, why should the rest of us?

September 03, 1997|MARC B. HAEFELE | Marc B. Haefele is a columnist for LA Weekly

Ever suspicious that local government can't be trusted to tax property owners fairly, the Howard Jarvis movement that brought us 1978's virtual ban on property tax increases last year handed the state Proposition 218, which virtually ends assessment districts for most public services.

Dubbed the "right to vote on taxes" act, the measure gave property owners the right to vote on special benefit assessments, such as those that paid for services like street lighting and parks--areas hard hit by cuts resulting from Proposition 13.

As Senior Assistant Los Angeles City Atty. Patricia Tubert puts it: Proposition 218 has changed nearly 100 years of assessment law.

Proposition 13 is a disaster for most Californians. It has created a two-tier property tax system and helped ravage our once-peerless education system. But I think there's an upside to Proposition 218, even if it's hard to see at first.

Certainly, public officials see no cause for optimism. The current battle line is drawn over the question of what happens to $42 million worth of city street lighting assessments. Tubert predicts that it will take many years to determine just how hard 218 hits other services.

Proposition 218 opponents predicted that it would doom $100 million in parks, library, ambulance and firefighting assessment programs. In many communities, assessments have kept such services alive. Such assessments usually cost property owners just pennies a day. So why the huge effort to save such small change? "A penny here, a penny there leads to a heavy yoke of taxation," responded Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., Proposition 13's leading proponent.

A recent Times article noted Proposition 218's inequities, as well as the cost and inconvenience of the local improvement elections it requires in districts with as few as five homes. A subsequent editorial excoriated 218 for its provision that gives large property owners a bigger vote than smaller ones.

Obviously, the initiative's implementation will be controversial.

So why do I feel that 218 might not be an altogether bad thing? Perhaps because unlike Proposition 13, which created a privileged elite of property owners at the expense of the rest of us, an improved 218 could have a leveling effect. And once its consequences are clear, it's sure to make people more aware of their civic obligations.

It's interesting that 218's opponents stigmatized the local election aspect. Tubert noted that assessments for lighting districts were voted down in the five district elections held so far. Apparently many of these people weren't actually opposed to street lighting. They just thought the rest of us should pick up their tab. Indeed, the whole idea of 218 was to rob other city services to pay costs otherwise met by assessment.

Let's let those negative votes prove otherwise. The city should turn out those lights as an overdue lesson to property owners that you can't get something for nothing. The great thing about 218 is that it may show Proposition 13-era voters that habitual anti-spending votes can hurt their own neighborhoods.

Face it: Unlit streets and derelict parks ruin property values and attract crime. There may be Angelenos who prefer such environments and will vote for them. The rest of us are privileged not to bail them out and to avoid their neighborhoods.

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