In an effort to close a $3-million gap in next year's budget, Santa Ana is asking property owners to approve a maintenance assessment district, a move that some are calling both unnecessary and illegal.
If the proposal is approved, homeowners would pay about $33 per year and apartment owners would be assessed about $24 per unit on an annual basis to pay for street, median and park maintenance, as well as graffiti removal and street lighting. If voters reject the initiative, city officials said, major service cuts would be made.
"We've made cuts down to the bone in the past," Santa Ana City Councilman Jose Solorio said. "Now we're at a point where we have to ask the public for help."
Ballots for the assessment district were mailed to property owners May 23, city officials said. They are due back by July 7. The measure must be approved by more than 50% of votes cast. Votes will be weighted based on property values.
The assessment district has no expiration date, but it can be reduced or eliminated during a yearly review by the City Council. Some critics of the proposed assessment are balking at the cost, asking the city to economize rather than impose what they see as a tax. They also complain that the proposal was not fully announced to the public before ballots were mailed.
Matt Petteruto, director of public affairs for the Apartment Assn. of Orange County, said if the measure passes, there will be a legal challenge.
"During the development of the assessment district there was zero effort to reach out," Petteruto said.
Because apartment owners will pay some of the higher fees, Petteruto said they will probably pass the cost to tenants.
Because Santa Ana is one of the oldest cities in the county, it requires substantial upkeep, Solorio said.
Some residents complain that the city wastes money.
"There are parks with lights on during the day, sprinklers on when it's raining," said Rod Estle, 50. "It's all pretty, but pretty costs money. And if we don't have the money now, well, pretty takes a back seat."
City officials said the idea for an assessment district had been around since last summer, but they didn't want to make it public until they had fine-tuned the proposal. The plan was put to the council in April, and city officials decided to move quickly to get it approved in time for the next round of property taxes.
"We had a very short time frame on it, we acknowledge that," said Teri Cable, city administrative services manager. "But we've been doing our best to get the word out."
The assessment district was first put before the City Council on April 21 and was further discussed in May. The next council hearing on the assessment will not take place until the ballots are due.
In the last few weeks, the city has sent out pamphlets, met with neighborhood groups and held informational meetings. Cable said the city has spent $75,000 on that effort. The next informational meeting is Tuesday at the Southwest Senior Center from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The city also has set up an information line: (714) 647-5696.
Cable said if the measure is approved, a citizen oversight committee will be formed to ensure the money is spent appropriately.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., said that although the assessment is intended for specific areas, the money would be used citywide in violation of state law. Proposition 218 requires assessments to be for specific projects, not for citywide general services.
Longtime Santa Ana homeowner Florence Leach, 80, has no doubt what the city is proposing.
"They just call it an assessment to make it sound milder," she said. "When they put it on your property tax bill, that's a tax."