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State Supreme Court decision in Alameda school parcel tax case could impact Davis district

By From page A1 | June 14, 2013

A decision this week by the California Supreme Court regarding a parcel tax in the Alameda Unified School District could have big implications for the Davis school district as well.

In a unanimous decision, the court let stand a lower court ruling that struck down several aspects of the district’s Measure H, a school parcel tax approved by voters there in 2008.

Measure H was challenged by a local businessman, and several others, who objected to the different rates charged homeowners and commercial property owners. The lawsuits — Borikas et al v. Alameda Unified School District — contended that state law requires “uniformity” in a parcel tax, i.e., a tax that will “apply uniformly to all taxpayers or all real property within the district.”

In Davis, local voters approved the school parcel tax Measure E last Nov. 6. It also charges different rates — $204 per year for single-family homes and $20 per unit per year for apartments, duplexes and other multi-unit dwellings.

Measure E was challenged in federal court and in Yolo Superior Court by several local tax activists. The federal lawsuit was consolidated into the Yolo Superior Court challenge in April, with the next hearing there set for July 29.

Plaintiff Jose Granda, a vocal opponent of several recent school parcel tax measures, was pleased with the decision, and predicted that the local court will “determine (that) Measure E is also invalid, as Measure E has the identical legal defects as did the (Alameda Unified) parcel tax.”

“I told the school board that Measure E was illegal,” Granda said. “Instead of structuring a tax that was not subject to legal attack, they needlessly took a significant risk.”

At a June 2012 school board meeting at which Measure E’s ballot language was drafted, attorney Peter Sturges, who advises the Davis school board on parcel tax matters, told the trustees that the dual-rate tax outlined in Measure E would be permissible under state law.

On March 6, the California Court of Appeal’s First Appellate District struck down portions of Alameda’s Measure H,  saying “(the) imposition of a higher tax on commercial or industrial property … exceeds the (Alameda) district’s taxing authority,” but adding “the language in Measure H imposing a different and higher tax rate on non-residential property… is easily excised, and its absence leaves a coherent, functioning tax measure.”

The appellate court decision also validated parcel tax exemptions for senior citizens and disabled people who are homeowners.

Alameda Unified quickly took the case to the California Supreme Court, seeking to have the decision reviewed. Now that the high court has declined to do so, Borikas will now return to the trial court, which will consider possible remedies. These potentially include refunds of some tax payments collected between 2008 and 2011, when the measure expired.

“We are disappointed the California Supreme Court declined to review this case,” said Kirsten Vital, superintendent of Alameda Unified, who added that there could be “a significant blow to our budget with many negative consequences for students, teachers and staff here in Alameda, as well as for other districts and local agencies across the state.

“We are also continuing to work with our elected representatives in the Legislature to clarify the legal standards applicable to parcel taxes.”

(In January, Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, introduced AB 59, a bill that would permit school districts to “assess taxes in accordance with rational classifications among taxpayers or types of property within the school district.” But Bonta’s bill hasn’t gotten past the committee level.)

Winfred Roberson, superintendent of the Davis school district, said the Supreme Court’s decision “impacts the pending legal challenge to Measure E. However, we are also aware that a possible legislative solution may bring a favorable resolution to this matter.

“Meanwhile, the Davis school district will do all within its power to defend the overwhelming decision of the Davis community to support their local schools through Measure E.”

Davis school board president Sheila Allen said “the school board and the Davis school district’s voters acted with their best intentions and current understanding of state law to support their local public schools” when approving Measure E.

“We remain committed to assuring that the will of the voters is implemented according to current law and court decisions,” Allen said.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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