When school districts put parcel taxes before voters, an appellate court has ruled, the new levies should have complied with state law requiring equal treatment of business and residential properties.
While following the rules might seem basic -- especially for educators -- school districts and other local governments in California have been violating them for years. In December, a unanimous three-judge panel, in a case involving the Alameda Unified School District, said no longer.
However, the court granted the district's request to reconsider. If the decision stands, similar taxes in Davis, San Leandro, West Contra Costa and five Los Angeles County school districts could also be affected.
We think the appellate court's December ruling correctly applied current law. That doesn't mean the law is a good policy. Districts have legitimate reasons to tax business properties differently than residential. That's why lawmakers should rewrite the law for the future. But it's not fair to voters to apply the change retroactively.
The issue stems from Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax cutting initiative, and Proposition 62, a 1986 initiative clarifying that new local government taxes must be voter-approved. To implement the two initiatives, the Legislature passed laws setting rules for new local taxes. Among the requirements, parcel taxes must "apply uniformly to all taxpayers or all real property within the district."
While the meaning of "uniformly" might seem obvious, school districts and other local governments have imposed their own definition. Parcel taxes they put before voters often set different rates for single-family residences, businesses and apartment buildings, or differentiate between developed and undeveloped parcels.
Walnut Creek attorney David Brillant challenged the Alameda school district's 2008 parcel tax, which imposes a $120 annual tax on residential parcels, and commercial and residential parcels less than 2,000 square feet. However, larger commercial and residential parcels are taxed at 15 cents per square foot up to $9,500 per year.
The three-judge panel ruled that the tax violated state law. However, rather than strike down the entire measure, it ordered a rollback for all parcels in the district to the $120 levy.
Because of a statute of limitations, the law doesn't allow Brillant to challenge all similar ballot measures. But the lawyer has filed timely lawsuits affecting the eight other districts.
Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, has introduced legislation, AB59, that would change the rules to permit variable rates for different types of property. That allows for a more reasonable sharing of the tax burden. We endorsed the San Leandro and West Contra Costa measures in November.
Nevertheless, we object to Bonta's proposed retroactive application of the change. The affected districts should not be permitted to collect taxes that exceed what the law allowed when they were put on the ballot -- especially because voters weren't advised of the legal problem.
Those districts should collect taxes at uniform levels and go back to voters for a change if Bonta's bill passes.
That's the fair solution.