A skeptical La Mesa-Spring Valley school board balked Tuesday night over the so-called downtown PBID when a La Mesa official discussed the tax-raising plan at the board’s Date Avenue headquarters.
Chris Gonzales, the city’s community development program coordinator, was lectured when he presented the effort to raise property taxes in The Village and nearby areas.
“The district was not part of the original so-called stake-holder process, and now we’re going to be assessed like a stake holder,” said board member Rick Winet. “There are just numerous reasons why the district is against this, but the genesis is that we weren’t even consulted or involved.”
Brian Marshall, superintendent of the K-8 school district, shared Winet’s surprise, saying a phone call in early January from La Mesa City Manager David Witt was the first he’d heard of the district’s involvement—despite 14 public meetings of the PBID committee.
“As the seventh-largest property holder, how could we have been missed?” Marshall asked Gonzales, the city’s liaison to the PBID Formation Committee.
Like others downtown, the district is being asked to sign a petition seeking a vote to determine whether property owners and residents should tax themselves. The revenue would go toward a variety of physical and service improvements, plus marketing and management costs.
The Warren T. Hogarth Education Center, the district headquarters on Date Avenue, would be subject to a $7,700 annual assessment under the PBID formula, giving the district a weighted vote in a PBID election of 1.99 percent.
By comparison, the city of La Mesa is the largest property holder—weighing in at 16 percent.
According to Gonzales, the improvements would affect only the public areas around the property. Maintenance services would include litter pickup from the curbs, gutters and sidewalks, as well as beautification, marketing, security and promotion services, among others.
Currently, the district receives what are called baseline services—primarily police, fire and street sweeping—and these would continue even without the PBID.
Marshall said he was happy with the services provided, and that it wasn’t district headquarters that needed additional maintenance but rather the 21 school sites “scattered around the La Mesa-Spring Valley communities.”
Even then, he said, many of the services aren’t really geared toward serving a school district.
“A marketing plan, improved pedestrian access, those sorts of PBID activities, which are great for the core business activities … won’t really necessarily benefit the district,” Marshall said.
And with new state budget cuts looming, an annual tax hike of nearly $8,000 is hard to swallow, the board suggested.
Bob Duff, the board’s vice president, said: “[The city] must be made aware ... that we are in the business of education, with no source of revenue other than what the state gives us. We cannot raise a tax to provide for it, so any source of money that comes out would come out of the educational funds for the kids.”
As a nonprofit entity, the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District isn’t obligated to pay taxes. If operating under PBID law alone, it wouldn’t have to.
However, in 1996, Proposition 218 required entities to provide evidence that they won’t benefit from the improvements being made. Section 4 speaks directly to the PBID assessment process:
Procedures and Requirements for All Assessments. (a) An agency which proposes to levy an assessment shall identify all parcels which will have a special benefit conferred upon them and upon which an assessment will be imposed. The proportionate special benefit derived by each identified parcel shall be determined in relationship to the entirety of the capital cost of a public improvement, the maintenance and operation expenses of a public improvement, or the cost of the property related service being provided.
No assessment shall be imposed on any parcel which exceeds the reasonable cost of the proportional special benefit conferred on that parcel. Only special benefits are assessable, and an agency shall separate the general benefits from the special benefits conferred on a parcel.
Parcels within a district that are owned or used by any agency, the State of California or the United States shall not be exempt from assessment unless the agency can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that those publicly owned parcels in fact receive no special benefit.
However, Gonzales said: “The state Constitution trumps the PBID law, and the state Constitution is fairly clear on the matter.” He later conceded that the district would receive no capital improvements specifically, but would be paying for supplemental maintenance.
“What your challenge would be is: You would need to make a case [for exemption],” said Gonzales, who spoke at the same time a Centennial Town Hall Meeting was also debating the PBID.
He said the district would most likely have to hire an independent assessment engineer, who would analyze the PBID management plan and property.
The agent would then recommend exemption or the possibility of a reduced assessment, much like local churches have received, he said. That report would be reviewed by the city’s assessment engineer and a decision made by City Council.
But, Gonzales said, exempting the school district would mean the city also would have to withdraw from the PBID process as the result of categorical exemption.
Marshall addressed this complication, saying that while the two entities are similar, the city is in a position to benefit from the proposed capital improvements.
“I think there’s a little bit of a catch-22 here, because as a government agency whatever happens to the school district has to happen to the city as well,” Marshall said.
He added that in this case the city is almost certain to see an increase in revenue from parking and other improved infrastructure even though the district won’t.
The school board now awaits a La Mesa City Council meeting Feb. 28, when the city is set to discuss its position on the PBID as a property owner.
“I believe that with a lot of homework I could create an argument that could exempt us,” Marshall said, while also giving the city “a little bit of wiggle room.”