Worried the state will dip into local tax dollars to balance its budget, Irvine officials will ask residents to nearly double a parcel tax to keep the city's parks pretty, sidewalks smooth and streets well-lighted.
The question will be posed this month, when the city mails ballots to about 60,000 landowners, who will have until April 9 to decide whether to increase the property assessments. Irvine is among a growing number of cities that fund some costs through assessment districts and now--with the economy battered and the state considering a raid on local taxes--are poised to ask residents for a helping hand.
City officials say the tax increase is necessary if Irvine hopes to keep its well-manicured look. But some residents say the assessment, which shows up on property tax bills, is a form of double taxation because they pay property taxes for such maintenance. Further, almost two-thirds of Irvine residents pay fees to homeowners associations to cover similar expenses within their neighborhoods.
Eunice Cluck and fellow tax fighters--mostly members of a group formed in 1999 that successfully fought a school tax--have launched a campaign to defeat the proposed increase.
City officials say landscaping, park maintenance and street lighting costs have shot up over the last five years because of the city's growth and higher energy prices. Next year, they estimate, the bill could approach $7 million--more than double what it was in 1997 when the parcel tax was approved.
"There were a couple of years when we were in a boom phase--the economy was strong and we were able to complete a lot of work on parks and other projects," said Kathleen Rafferty, manager of fiscal services for Irvine. "But in an economic downturn, there is no guarantee that we'll have the money to continue subsidizing these costs from the general fund."
Cities throughout the state are in the same pinch, uncertain whether to cut costs and delay projects or turn to voters for more revenue, said Megan Taylor, a spokeswoman for the League of California Cities. "Cities all over the state are looking at what they need to do to balance their budgets," she said.
Seal Beach, for instance, is considering a special assessment district to cover the cost of fighting storm-water pollution, said City Manager John B. Bahorski
But in recent years, Orange County voters have been reluctant to pass special taxes. In November, Seal Beach property owners voted down a proposal to raise the per-parcel levy for street sweeping and tree trimming from 50 cents to $1.46. Irvine property owners twice rejected a special tax to preserve school programs.
The Irvine City Council will discuss the proposed fees Tuesday. A public hearing is set April 9, and ballots must be returned by the close of the hearing.
Marilyn Vassos, a 35-year resident, said she sees no choice but to support the tax hike.
"Sometimes you have to pay for what you get," said Vassos, who lives in University Park and pays homeowners association dues. "People are always saying Irvine is so pretty. Well, people are going to have to decide whether they want it to continue to look so pretty."