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Special tax districts are a tough sell


San Diego County is in the midst of a taxpayer revolt over the increasing use of special assessment districts to fund community amenities and infrastructure. Rebellions in Mira Mesa over landscaping fee increases, in Grossmont over a special school assessment district and in Mission Hills over its business improvement district have been joined by downtown business owners facing stiff fee increases for parks. In spite of the uproar, special assessment districts remain popular among many community and business leaders. Carmel Valley residents may soon decide whether an open space regional park is worth a contribution of approximately $55 per household a year. A number of school districts will attempt to use assessment districts this year to feed their hungry kitties. Businesses continue to form business improvement districts to upgrade deteriorating retail areas. Special assessment districts should thrive in today's politically conservative atmosphere. The principle is simple: If a community wants an amenity, such as a new park, extra palm trees or an identity sign, the community foots the bill. These districts allow local control over spending because the money can only be used for specific projects. Local groups can keep a sharp eye on the account because the money doesn't disappear into the city-budget black hole, the general fund. But a growing public perception that government is inherently wasteful may ruin a good idea. The first problem lies in the common belief that the city bureaucracy absorbs so much tax revenue that little is left for things people really want: services, infrastructure and general maintenance. Special assessment districts, the logic goes, simply enable this dysfunctional system to consume dollars while producing less and less. According to this logic, if taxpayers starve the government long enough, it will have to get leaner and meaner. But it is easier to starve someone else than to lose weight yourself. Governments can be counted on to rob Peter to pay Paul's salary. So, while this great awakening on the part of governments prevails, entire generations in new neighborhoods can go from cradle to college without playing in a community park, and older communities sink in decay. Many believe that infrastructure and amenities serving new developments should be paid for by the developers who make the profits. In fact, new community facilities are paid for by Facilities Benefits Assessment funds (FBAs) collected from developers when they are granted building permits. But the FBA mechanism has proved clumsy; communities like Carmel Valley and Mira Mesa may wait decades for enough permits to be issued to adequately fund parks, libraries and police stations. A taxpayer nightmare came true a few years ago when Carmel Valley broke open its FBA piggy bank to start construction on a long-awaited community park, only to find the fund empty. The city had taken the money to pay for Route 56. After a year of intense effort, city officials were convinced that freeways serve an entire region, the money was returned, and another freeway-funding source was found, perhaps from someone else's prized project. In the Mira Mesa assessment district rebellion, taxation was less the issue than fairness. While development fees were cut 21 percent last year, residents were asked to kick in an extra $45 per year to fund new parks and a fire station. Many felt that developer responsibilities were unfairly shifted to residents. The City Council turned down the fee increase after strenuous opposition surfaced. For people to tax themselves, they must believe that they will get some bang for their buck. Herein lies the final rub. The Pentagon's infamous $600 toilet seats are nothing compared to the city's bill to local district funds for the $200,000 restrooms -- sans sinks -- gracing some new city parks. As long as doing business with the city means paying up to 10 times the reasonable rate, taxpayers will balk at more fees. In spite of these problems, 73 percent of the residents in Del Mar Heights and Carmel Valley indicated in a recent poll that they are in favor of forming an assessment district to purchase the last habitat of its kind in the world for an open-space nature park. In a unique purchasing partnership with the city, Carmel Mountain (neighborhood 8A), the city's own Galapagos Island, would be rescued from a development plan that threatens Torrey Pines State Park and Penasquitos Canyon. The reasons for the popularity of the Carmel Valley assessment district are instructive: There is a clear purpose for the assessment: providing an open space natural park. There is a high return on investment: preserving a museum of Southern California habitat found nowhere else in the world. The city will share the pain: A community/city partnership will produce the first and most valuable piece in the mayor's Multiple Species Conservation plan. The costs will never increase, nor can the fund be raided for any other purpose. Special assessment districts can work if they have a well-defined purpose and are fair. But as long as the public views government as fat and sloppy, assessment districts will remain a tough sell.

ROSS is a writer and member of the Carmel Valley Planning Board. Liftout: If a community wants an amenity, the community must foot the bill.

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