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College Tax End Run Has Homeowners Crying Foul

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Proving the spirit of Proposition 13 is alive and well, a plan by Los Angeles community college officials to levy a new tax on more than 1 million properties in the county has unleashed a political firestorm reaching all the way to Sacramento.

The proposal for a $12-a-year assessment on every homeowner in the 882-square-mile community college district has drawn criticism from thousands of residents, prompted the state Assembly to try to kill the plan and spurred recall threats against college trustees.

Suddenly, the usually obscure leaders of Los Angeles’ troubled, 95,000-student college district find themselves burning in a hot public spotlight for one reason: trying to enact a parcel tax without submitting it for voter approval.

“I think people need to understand we’re raging mad. This is not a little flurry,” warned Val Cole, a Westside homeowners group leader who joined an angry crowd of more than 500 people last week at the district’s first public hearing on the proposal.

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Under a little-known state law, college trustees can enact a so-called landscaping and lighting assessment district to raise funds for various capital improvements. The Los Angeles board wants to raise about $21 million annually from district property owners for at least 20 years, enough to issue bonds for $205 million in college facility improvements.

By law, the Los Angeles district’s nine community colleges can’t use the money to add classes or make other academic improvements. So instead, officials have proposed a vast array of lighting, landscaping, parking and recreational improvements to spruce up their campuses--projects some have derided as frivolous.

Southwest College, for example, wants $2 million for state-of-the-art scoreboards. City College wants $54 million to buy and develop a park. East Los Angeles College wants $20 million for a stadium parking structure. Pierce College in Woodland Hills wants $6.9 million to build a 2,500-seat equestrian complex.

To college leaders, the tax plan will spruce up the district’s aged campuses, made even more dilapidated by chronic shortages of state funds, and ultimately help attract more students. In 1991, the district tried to pass a $200-million facilities bond measure and just missed two-thirds voter approval.

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But to critics, the latest plan is just government trampling taxpayers. Even before notices of the college district’s plan were mailed out a month ago, anti-tax groups were campaigning for a measure on the November ballot that would make such assessments subject to voter approval.

“It’s the fact they are cramming it down people’s throats. They’re not giving people a chance to say whether this is what we want to do,” complained Gordon Murley, a San Fernando Valley homeowners leader who said that is more the issue than the $12 levy itself.

The proposed tax--college officials insist on calling it an assessment--would cover the entire district, about 45% of the 2.24 million parcels in the county. The college district includes the entire Los Angeles Unified School District and more than a half dozen other suburban school systems.

In addition to the levy on nearly 770,000 single family homes, college officials want to charge $9.36 per unit to the owners of nearly 900,000 apartments and condominiums. Commercial property would be assessed $66 per acre, while industrial owners would pay $51.36 per acre.

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Angry residents verbally assaulted the college district’s seven-member board of trustees--itself sharply divided over the plan--for five hours last week at Valley College in Van Nuys. By Friday, though, the same slim majority still favored the tax. A final board vote is set for June 12.

“My commitment is really to our colleges and education. I feel the $12 assessment--the price of a movie ticket and a box of popcorn--is very, very reasonable,” trustee Althea Baker said Friday. “The value to the community far exceeds the value of what we’re asking.”

“The appearance of a campus is like its doormat,” said Josh Crook, this year’s student body president at Pierce College, who favors the tax. “If people see everything is disheveled, they’re going to say the education must be bad” and choose other colleges instead, he said.

Some trustees also weren’t swayed by residents’ Proposition 13 pleas. “They don’t say the flip side,” said trustee Kenneth Washington. “If they’re in a pre-Prop. 13 house, they’ve been underpaying their taxes for almost 20 years. And a lot of things have suffered as a result.”

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The landmark 1978 ballot measure in California imposed a basic 1% property tax rate and limited increases in property valuations, except when owners sell. It also required any special tax increases to obtain two-thirds voter approval, sharply curtailing government’s ability to raise money.

But that led public agencies to seek other revenue sources, including the obscure Landscaping and Lighting Act passed in 1972 to allow the city of Manhattan Beach to assess fees for street lights. Its chief virtue: No voter approval required.

Several court rulings, including one by the state Supreme Court, have confirmed the law’s use. But Los Angeles would become only the second community college district to enact such an assessment.

District officials have been debating the tax plan for the past year, starting with a $4-per-house levy and about $46 million in districtwide projects. Both amounts have steadily grown over the months, but a district poll in December said 54% of voters would support a $12 levy.

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The public backlash began only last month, when the district mailed required notices announcing the tax proposal and two public hearings: the one last week and another set for 7 p.m. June 12 at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College.

As of last week, the district had been inundated with more than 2,700 phone calls and received about 5,000 formal protest letters, officials said. Property owners can continue to file protest letters with the district through June 12. But some say the effort is futile.

By law, the tax only can be stopped if the owners of more than half of all the property in the district file protests--something trustee Lindsay Conner, a tax foe, called about as likely as “the Titanic raising itself.”

Spurred by angry calls from constituents, Assembly Majority Leader James Rogan (R-Glendale) and Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills) persuaded the Assembly on Wednesday to pass two state budget amendments that would thwart the tax. Both measures would deduct $1.10 in state funding from the colleges for every $1 raised through assessment.

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Rogan, who is running for Congress, called the district’s plan “a terrible act that has not gone unnoticed” and an “attempt to circumvent Proposition 13.” And Boland, who is running for state Senate, called the proposal “nothing more than an overt manipulation of a legislative loophole.”

From the other side of the aisle, state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), while supporting the colleges’ need for more funding, called the assessment “an onerous, draconian, backdoor, undemocratic way to raise money.” He said voters, not government, should have the final say.

“I’m telling you the time has come when it’s become a very big issue,” Hayden said of the growing list of government-imposed fees and assessments. “A point has been passed in the evolution since Prop. 13 where these have added up to the point where people are really noticing them.”


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