SAN LEANDRO -- A Walnut Creek attorney who won a court ruling invalidating an Alameda school parcel tax has sued eight other school districts, alleging their similar parcel taxes also are illegal because they tax property owners at different rates.
On the heels of the precedent-setting court victory, attorney David Brillant is seeking to invalidate four parcel tax measures approved on the November ballot in San Leandro Unified, West Contra Costa Unified, Davis Joint Unified and a group of five districts in Los Angeles County. Brillant filed the suits in the county courts in January, just before the 60-day statute of limitations following the election was up, he said. His clients, which vary from case to case, are commercial property owners in each district.
Brillant sued Alameda Unified in 2008 on behalf of commercial property owner George K. Borikas, claiming the district's Measure H parcel tax was illegal because it taxed residential and commercial parcels at different rates. The First District Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled in December that nearly all of the $18 million the district received under Measure H was collected illegally. The district is appealing the decision to the Supreme Court of California.
If the ruling is upheld, it will dictate how districts statewide structure their parcel taxes in the future.
All told, more than $206 million is on the line in the new cases, according to district projections, money that many said was crucial to staving off detrimental cuts to programs and personnel.
San Leandro's Measure L aimed to raise $12 million over the next five years by taxing multifamily lots with five or more units $19 per year, vacant and unimproved parcels $39 per year, and businesses 2 cents per square foot of lot size.
Superintendent Cindy Cathey said plans will proceed to begin collecting the tax in December of this year.
"The District believes in Measure L and will vigorously defend the challenge to preserve the will of the voters of San Leandro who supported the measure," Cathey said in a statement. "Many districts throughout the state have similarly structured measures, and we expect that the Legislature will take action necessary to support the financial stability of these districts."
Taxpayers in West Contra Costa Unified approved a five-year extension to a parcel tax set to expire in 2014 to raise $50 million. Under Measure G, property owners are taxed 7.2 cents per building square foot or $7.20 per empty parcel. District officials declined to comment on the lawsuit.
In the Davis Joint Unified District, residents voted to extend a parcel tax that calls for property owners to pay $204 per parcel or $20 per dwelling for multidwelling units for four years to raise an estimated $12.8 million for the district.
Residents of the five school districts in west Los Angeles County approved Measure CL, which aims to raise $132 million over the next 12 years by taxing 2 cents per square foot of lot for residential property and 7.5 cents per square foot of lot for nonresidential properties. Centinela Valley Union High School District in Lawndale stands to receive the most funding in the group from the tax.
District officials in Davis and in Los Angeles County did not respond to requests for comment.
Newly elected state Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, introduced legislation earlier this month that he says would clarify existing law and make uneven taxation by school districts legal if "rational classifications" of different kinds of parcels are used.
Brillant contends Bonta's proposed law, which would apply to past parcel taxes, "would just lead to more litigation."
"The legislature has given the school districts a set of rules and most have stayed within the boundaries of those rules," Brillant said. "However, other school districts have taken the approach of pushing the envelope and going way outside of the rules, and they need to get back in line with what they have been allowed to do."
It is unclear if any districts will hold off on collecting taxes until Brillant's lawsuit is settled. The Piedmont Unified School District decided not to move forward with a nonuniform parcel tax, Measure A on the March special election ballot, and will now propose a standard $2,406 annual tax per parcel tax for eight years.
Ashly McGlone covers San Leandro, San Lorenzo and the Washington Township Health Care District. Contact her at 510-293-2463. Follow her at Twitter.com/AshlyReports.