Builders Continue Fight to Stop Tax Election

Times Staff Writer

Reversing an earlier position, two builders' associations said Tuesday that they will appeal a judge's refusal to block a June 2 tax election that could require developers in the Santa Clarita Valley to pay millions of dollars for school construction.

An attorney for the developers had said Monday that it was unlikely that the developers would challenge the ruling.

"We feel the issue is so important that it should be reviewed now, before the election," said Richard Wirth, a spokesman for the California Building Industry Assn. and the Building Industry Assn. of Southern California. "We view this as a statewide test case."

The two groups filed a lawsuit Friday challenging six ballot measures, which call for special taxes averaging about $6,000 on each new housing unit in five Santa Clarita Valley school districts. Among other things, the suit maintained that the tax measures are illegal. The builders contend that a state law that went into effect Jan. 1 limits school districts to levying a maximum of $1.50 a square foot on new housing to build schools.

"The state Legislature already has spoken," Wirth said.

But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jerry K. Fields Monday refused to order the measures removed from the ballot on the grounds that the courts should not interfere with elections. "Let the election go ahead, and, if it does pass, then attack it," he said.

Wirth said Fields' ruling left the door open for builders to take their challenge to a higher court.

At a news conference Tuesday, Santa Clarita Valley school administrators and their attorney, Alex Bowie, said the state Constitution authorizes school districts to hold elections to impose taxes earmarked for special purposes, such as school construction. It was not the Legislature's intent to preclude school districts from asking voters to approve special-purpose taxes beyond the $1.50 fee, Bowie said.

The $1.50 fee was never meant to meet all school construction needs, said Clyde Smyth, superintendent of the William S. Hart Union High School District.

"The arithmetic just doesn't work," he said.

Los Angeles County planners project that 30,000 new residential units will be built in the Santa Clarita Valley within the next 20 years. That amount of development, Smyth said, will bring with it 20,000 new students, almost twice the area's present school population.

About 25 new schools must be built--at a cost of $300 million--to accommodate the enrollment increase, he said. Smyth added that the $1.50 fee will raise only a third of the required amount.

Bowie accused developers of working behind the scenes to eliminate any fee on building, an allegation Wirth denied. He said developers will lobby for a bill to make the language contained in the school financing law more definitive.

He said a variety of proposed bills on school facilities, ranging from eliminating the $1.50 fee to reducing it, will be heard by the state Senate's Education Committee on April 1.

"We don't object to paying our fair share for schools," Wirth said. "We do object to footing the whole bill."

The June ballot measures are "taxation without representation," he said, in that the $6,000 tax will be passed on to new home buyers. "It's not fair to tax people who aren't even there right now," Wirth said.

Attorneys for the two developer groups will file an appeal of Fields' ruling early next week with the state Court of Appeals, he said.

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