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The special tax zone in Golden Hill that a California appeals court struck down last week is one of dozens that now exist across San Diego.
The zones have proliferated across the city, allowing neighborhood property owners to tax themselves and pay for their own improvements and services. There are now close to 60 of them. They’ve paid for all kinds of services, like maintaining the traffic circles along La Jolla Boulevard in Bird Rock, tree trimming in City Heights and extra trash cans and private security guards in Hillcrest.
And the city of San Diego, strapped for cash, has helped them flourish.
In 2004, it established a special fund to help neighborhoods start the special tax zones. Starting one can cost tens of thousands of dollars because they require a vote-by-mail election and a consultant to figure out how much each property owner will pay. The city created a fund to lend neighborhood groups the money for those startup costs, as long as they paid the money back when they started collecting assessments from property owners.
What Makes a Special Benefit Special
The tax zones, called maintenance assessment districts, are supposed to pay for special improvements or services above and beyond what the city provides, what are called special benefits.
In Mission Hills, for example, a district was created to pay for decorative, old-timey street lights.
But the city is providing less and less in terms of basic services like tree trimming and graffiti cleanup, so the zones have increasingly become a way for neighborhoods to make up for the city’s neglect.
Marco Li Mandri, who helped establish the special tax district in Little Italy, told our Scott Lewis that these special districts are the only way property owners will be able to prevent physical decline in their neighborhoods.
“The level of service, (outside of police and fire and trash pickup) that the city provides is declining and is pretty dismal,” Li Mandri said. “I don’t care where you are in the country, these special benefit districts are going to be the only way we will maintain our neighborhoods and business districts in the future.”
But before it can collect that money, the city has to get property owners to agree to tax themselves.
How Elections Work
In Golden Hill’s election over a tax district in 2007, the vote was close. But the city was able to ensure it passed by making its own votes worth a lot more.
That’s not necessarily illegal. All votes to establish the special tax zones are weighted, meaning the more a property owner is going to be taxed, the more that property owner’s vote is worth.
Figuring out how much each property owner will pay is based on a simple concept. The more their property is going to benefit from the services the special tax will fund, the more they pay.
Where it gets tricky is figuring out how much each property will benefit. It’s up to the city to come up with a formula for that.
Once it does, each property owner knows how much he or she will pay if the tax passes. When that person votes, all their money goes into either the “yes” or “no” box. At the end of the vote, whichever box has more money wins.
How the City Cast a Deciding Vote
In Golden Hill, the city owns 95 parcels, so it got 95 votes.
Eighty-nine of them are canyon land, and the city made them worth more than four times as much as a single family home. But it didn’t explain why. The city’s votes were worth about $35,000.
When the vote was done, the “yes” box had $123,266 in it. The “no” box had $105,236 in it.
The tax passed.
In its ruling, the court noted that the city’s votes made the difference. But the city never said why canyon land should be worth so much more than a single family home. If the city’s properties hadn’t been worth as much, the tax probably would not have passed.
So it ruled the tax in Golden Hill was illegal.
Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?
Contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619.325.0528.
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