Across California, the fate of millions of dollars for services such as city parks and street lights is riding on a new wave of balloting that looks like nothing voters have seen before.
There’s no booth--ballots are mailed. Owning property is the only voting qualification. The more property you have, the more your vote counts. And renters have to sit out.
If it sounds like democracy turned on its head, consider one more irony: The state’s voters created this new way of expressing the public’s will.
It happened last fall with approval of Proposition 218, the latest incarnation of California’s two-decade-old tax rebellion. Dubbed the “right to vote on taxes act,” the initiative won by a healthy margin and gave voters just what it promised--the right to vote on local taxes.
Since then, voters have been summoned to their usual polling places to decide a variety of taxes, from utility levies to library taxes.
But now, as cities statewide scurry to meet a July 1 implementation deadline, residents and officials are confronting a less-publicized, and more confusing, portion of the new law.
This second aspect hands property owners unprecedented authority over local assessment districts, obscure tools that cities and schools long have used to raise money for park maintenance, new street landscaping and sidewalks.
Perhaps the most controversial elements of the change are seen in the wave of balloting, now underway in Monrovia, Glendora, Torrance, Irvine and a host of other cities, allowing residents to approve assessments that formerly showed up on property tax bills with scant public notice.
These voters face a host of unfamiliar rules:
* Mail-in ballots that lack the confidentiality of conventional votes. The ballot often comes in the form of a postcard, showing the voter’s name and address next to the boxes to be checked.
* The law provides that only property owners can vote on assessments, making for a pool of voters that includes nonresidents--even owners who live out of state or abroad--but leaves out renters.
* Government agencies with property in the proposed district, such as a county or the state Department of Motor Vehicles, would for the first time face the same assessments as private owners and therefore also get the right to vote. A separate fight may loom over which ones must pay.
* Absent is the principle of “one person, one vote.” Votes are weighted by how much assessment the owner would pay, meaning big property owners, such as commercial owners and government agencies, get the most clout. In Monrovia, for example, a big dump site will get nearly 200 times the votes of an average homeowner.
Placing property owners in direct control of local finance issues to this degree amounts to what one city administrator called “a sea change in local government.”
“I would be willing to wager that 99.9% of the voters of the state of California did not read Prop. 218 and had no idea what they were voting on,” said that official, Steve Wylie, who is assistant city manager in West Covina. The city is asking property owners to approve a $1.2-million assessment to pay for maintenance of street lights and trees.
The law is so complicated that the League of California Cities is circulating an 170-page guide to teach confused local officials how to enact it.
“I’m reading 218 as saying ‘We want to make the decisions ourselves,’ ” said Mike Parness, San Clemente’s city manager. “It’s changed fundamentally the way we operate, the way we think and who’s making the decisions.”
Not everyone is happy about the unfamiliar assessment process. Although there appear to have been no legal challenges to the provisions, the Los Angeles City Council has complained that renters are blocked from voting. And some residents don’t like the lack of ballot confidentiality.
But backers of Proposition 218 say they have handed taxpayers tighter control over City Hall’s purse strings. Sponsors point out that some features of assessment voting that seem most unusual--such as excluding renters and weighting votes--were part of the previous process.
“We’ve given [taxpayers] a better system and also a more public system,” said Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.
The mail-in assessment votes around the state are distinct from a separate wave of elections to decide new taxes. Those votes, many of which also are required by Proposition 218, include Los Angeles County’s recent approval of special taxes for libraries and fire services.
Although assessments show up on property tax bills, they are not the same as taxes and face different rules. Assessments are based on the benefits one property receives from a particular service, such as the street lights or landscaping in its neighborhood. Taxes are typically levied for services that benefit the community at large, such as libraries or police.
Although assessment districts account for a small share--an estimated 5%--of revenue raised by California cities, they have been a favorite target of anti-tax activists.
Critics charged that local governments abused their power to establish benefit assessment districts to skirt the restrictions of tax-limiting laws such as Proposition 13. California cities raised $304 million a year through benefit assessment districts in 1993, compared to $28 million in 1978, according to figures assembled by the California Taxpayers’ Assn.
Before Proposition 218, municipalities and schools created districts without any vote by property owners. A procedure that allowed owners to object formally to a proposed assessment was rarely used. To block an assessment, owners holding more than half of the affected property had to lodge public protests, which were weighted according to the amount of land held. City councils and school boards kept override power.
“Assessment districts were so arcane, taxpayers never knew they existed,” Fox said.
Those districts burst into public view with Proposition 218. The new law now requires government to ask property owners’ approval and removes its power to override a no vote. Owners get 45 days to mail back their ballots--one per property. A majority carries the day.
But the new ballot has raised the ire of some. A La Verne resident complained to federal officials that the nonconfidential ballot used by the local school district violated his rights and might deter people from opposing the proposed recreation assessment. Others have suggested the ballots could be used to manipulate elections because it could be known how the vote is tilting and who is tilting it before the final tally is in.
There have even been comical complications. An irrigation district in Northern California had to puzzle over what to do about a couple who could not agree on how to cast the single ballot allotted their property. In the end, the couple’s conflicting votes were disqualified.
The public nature of the procedure isn’t an entirely new idea. Under the prior system, protest letters submitted by owners were public records, too.
Owners always enjoyed the exclusive right to protest assessments, and authors of Proposition 218 say the balloting process simply takes this right one step further. In fact, the law treats assessment votes not as conventional elections at all, but as a formal way for property owners to lodge their objections. One has to own property--not be a resident or registered voter--to cast the new ballots.
So executives at the Atlanta headquarters of Home Depot get to vote on a proposed park assessment in Monrovia, where the chain has a store. Baldwin Park officials estimate that 40% of the mail-in ballots in their city’s vote went to outside owners. Several are based overseas.
“It is going to be interesting to see what effect the absentee landlord is going to have,” said Carl Yeats, Baldwin Park’s city manager. Leaders in beach cities and other places with many renters and absentee owners fear they may have difficulty winning assessments for services only locals are likely to use.
Backers of Proposition 218 say it’s only fair that power over assessments resides solely with property owners. “Because it’s the property owner being hit with the assessment, it’s appropriate the property owner gets the vote,” said Stephen Kroes, research director for the California Taxpayers’ Assn.
The law has already come under fire because renters are excluded. The Los Angeles City Council voted to sue on constitutional grounds soon after Proposition 218 was approved. But city attorneys now say the city probably lacks legal standing for such a challenge because it is not deprived of any rights.
The provision treating public agencies like private owners has surprised officials who now must figure out whether to support proposed assessments--and if their agencies must pay. The U.S. Postal Service may be immune because it is a federal agency, while those such as the state Department of Motor Vehicles or Los Angeles County probably have to pay, experts say.
Taxing other governments also means letting them vote. Because they often hold lots of property, public entities wield big blocs in some assessment elections.
The largest voter in the Bonita Unified School District’s recent bid for a $798,000 recreation assessment was the district itself. The district, covering Le Verne and San Dimas, held votes equal to those of about 1,400 homeowners. (The assessment passed by nearly 2 to 1).
In West Covina’s current voting on the $1.2-million maintenance assessment, three of the four largest blocs belong to city or school agencies.
The law’s architects say they wanted governments to face the same assessments as private owners. That might force officials to think twice before seeking new assessments, they said. But even some supporters are uneasy with the governments’ hefty voting clout.
“We can out-vote a lot of property owners,” worried Mike Spence, a taxpayer activist and president of West Covina’s school board. Spence and board colleagues eventually voted to reject the city’s assessment bid.
The reason for the extra voting power is that votes are weighted by how much the owner would pay: the steeper the assessment, the more votes. The assessment is based on the amount that person’s property would benefit from the improvement.
That math means big power for the largest owners. The Irvine Co., the giant Orange County developer, holds nearly a fifth of the votes being cast in Irvine’s bid to raise $1.4 million for street lighting and landscaping.
The weighted vote, also a holdover from days before Proposition 218, troubles some officials and residents accustomed to the one vote per person of conventional elections.
“No one should be entitled to a greater say in the city’s future just because they pay more into City Hall,” said Arcadia Councilman Sheng Chang, who opposed his city’s recent decision to raise $2 million through an assessment district.
Some cities are taking other routes, such as calling voters to the polls to consider citywide taxes. Berkeley did so to gain approval of $8 million for upkeep of parks and landscaping, plus emergency medical services.
Seeking special taxes, which need a two-thirds majority to pass, can be risky. Voters in Stanton and San Clemente this month shot down taxes that would have replaced former assessments.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Voting on Assessments
Here’s how the new elections on local assessment districts are different:
* Ballots identifying voters are mailed in, eliminating confidentiality.
* Only property owners may vote, which could allow non-residents--but not renters--to have a say in local taxes.
* Government agencies get to vote but also will be forced to pay assessments.
* Votes are weighted by how much property is owned, and therefore how high an assessment would be paid.