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Stateside with Rosalea: Unlucky for most?

Stateside with Rosalea

Unlucky for most?

By Rosalea Barker

On June 6, Proposition 13 celebrates its 25th anniversary here in California. Associated Press correspondent Jim Wasserman, in a story picked up in the San Francisco Examiner yesterday, said it was dubbed "a political earthquake" when it passed and was later viewed "as the first shot of the conservative 1980s Reagan Revolution."

The proposition was a citizen initiated referendum on property taxes, "rolling tax rates back to 1975 levels, capping them permanently at 1 percent of a property's value and guaranteeing they would rise no more than 2 percent a year." It stripped power from government to set property tax rates and handed it to citizens, Wasserman says.

I first heard of Proposition 13 in my early days here in the Bay Area when I commented on the number of street people who were obviously unable to care for themselves. Prop 13 took away the money available for institutional care, I was told. Indeed, Wasserman says that $6.1 billion dollars were stripped from that year's tax take back in 1978. California's budget deficit this year is $38.2 billion.

Today, just down the street from me in the city of Emeryville, voters are going to the polls to vote on measures to counteract those effects of Prop 13, using a method the proposition itself mandated. They are voting on the introduction of a parcel tax - a flat rate per parcel of land in their locality - in order to supplement the money their school districts obtain from federal, state and local government sources.

That is what "stripped power from government to set property tax rates and handed it to citizens" means in effect. And many school districts have had to raise money this way over the intervening 25 years. I'll put a link at the end of the column to a very succinct description of the process at the website of one school PTSA in Southern California that also has a parcel tax ballot measure today.

In their "Parcel Tax 101" the authors at Robinson Elementary School's PTSA website point out that approximately 5 percent of California's school districts have passed a parcel tax. "You may know that Prop 13 established property taxes statewide at 1% of assessed value. But Prop 13 also gave local governments the ability to levy a tax on parcels, raising local funds for schools," they say.

As the authors point out, parcel taxes are most successful in middle class communities where parents have high expectations of schools and are able to contribute financially to their success. The ballot process has to be initiated by volunteers and cannot be run by the school district, though the election itself, of course, is run by the election officials of the county in which the school district exists.

Alameda County has two parcel tax votes today - one in Newark as well as the one in Emeryville - but you'd hardly know this was happening. In fact, in this morning's early news bulletin KRON4 didn't even mention the Emeryville measure in its list of Bay Area ballots. Emeryville is a mix of industrial and commercial use - including companies like Pixar, Siebel and Chiron - with high-rise apartment buildings and a brand new chi-chi shopping mall next to an Ikea store. The city (pop. 7,000) lies on the edge of the San Francisco Bay between the Berkeley Marina and the Oakland Waterfront, but is largely cut off from the water by a tangle of freeways. It is built on a shellmound, an indicator that it was the site of an ancient native American village.

So what do school districts in poor areas do to cover costs, when the local property owners aren't likely to be able to afford a parcel tax? Well, they get taken over by the state, as the Oakland School District was - just yesterday - in exchange for a $100 million loan. The "power to set taxes" that Wasserman referred to in his story is only real power if your citizens have the money to pay them, it seems.

Parcel Tax 101: Emeryville: Oakland Unified School District:

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