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Settlements Can't Force Tax Increases, State Justices Rule

Court: Investors seeking payment from the Ventura Port District sought to waive provisions of Prop. 13. Taxpayer advocates praise the decision.

February 16, 2001|MATT SURMAN and MAURA DOLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In a decision involving a Ventura Harbor marina development bankruptcy, the state Supreme Court said Thursday that local governments cannot be forced to pay for lawsuit settlements by raising property taxes.

Taxpayer advocates praised the decision, saying that a ruling favorable to the Ventura Port District's creditors would have paved the way for tax increases statewide and virtually overturned portions of Proposition 13, which limits property tax increases.

The court rejected Ventura Group Ventures' argument that Proposition 13, which requires a two-thirds vote of the public on property tax hikes, should not apply in cases of legal judgments.

Ventura Group Ventures has been trying since 1990 to collect on a $15.7-million court judgment stemming from a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the port district, a government-created entity that operates Ventura's marina. The group contended that the port backed away from parts of a deal that would have allowed it to develop much of the marina waterfront.

In 1993, the port district filed for bankruptcy and later paid $8 million to the Ventures creditors with money raised from a bond. The creditors then argued that port district property owners should be taxed to help pay the difference.

Timothy A. Bittle, director of legal affairs for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., called Thursday's high court ruling a victory for property owners. If the court had ruled against the Ventura Port District, which operates the marina, "it would have resulted in a lot of tax increases" statewide, Bittle said.

Robert Orellana, assistant counsel for Ventura County, agreed, saying that an adverse decision would have opened up tax hikes "whenever someone had a judgment, even for a slip and fall."

The case now returns to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but lawyers said they expected no change because that court has said that it would abide by the Supreme Court ruling. The 9th Circuit in Los Angeles asked the state Supreme Court to clarify the state constitutional issues involved in the case.

"It's the closing of the last chapter," said Tom Bunn, an attorney for the port district. "This forced the [port district] into bankruptcy and into bond obligation, so I wouldn't call it a major victory. But I think the port district is grateful it doesn't have to go out and levy taxes."

Attorneys for Ventura Group Ventures did not return calls.

The ruling comes more than two decades after an earlier incarnation of the Ventures group signed an agreement with the port district to build an aquarium, restaurant and retail facilities. The district did not reveal that it had an agreement with another developer prohibiting retail facilities at the harbor.

That group, called Ocean Services, went bankrupt in 1987 and sued, receiving a $31-million jury judgment in 1990. The amount was later reduced to about $15 million.

Port district director Oscar Pena said that Wednesday's decision would pull the harbor out from under a cloud it has been living with since the bankruptcy filing.

The court appeared to have little patience with the creditors' arguments, writing: "A district can no longer expect a county to levy taxes to raise whatever sum the district budget calls for. That those days are long gone should come as no surprise to [Ventura Group Ventures] or anyone else."

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