PIEDMONT -- A crowd of about 40 people filled Piedmont City Council chambers to hear the pros and cons of Measure A, a proposed school parcel tax on the March 5 ballot that would raise $9.5 million over eight years.
Panelists Doug Ireland and Jonathan Davis presented arguments for Measure A and Tom Clark and Rick Schiller spoke against the proposal. The Piedmont League of Women Voters hosted the Feb. 7 forum.
"Why are we here tonight?" asked Ireland, who is co-chair of the parcel tax committee. "Because Piedmonters believe in our schools. People move to Piedmont because of the quality of our schools. Piedmonters want to exercise control over the education of the kids. This parcel tax is raised locally and used locally."
In addition, he said, good schools increase property values for all residents. If passed, Measure A would levy an eight-year, flat tax beginning July 1.
Schiller said he doesn't oppose Piedmont's excellent schools or the $9.5 million tax amount. However, he does oppose the proposed annual flat-rate assessment of $2,406 per parcel and the fact that there is no senior exemption.
"Most of our financially vulnerable seniors live in the small homes that will have a 15 percent tax increase to $2,406," said Schiller, a lifelong Piedmont resident. "Other affluent cities such as Orinda and Moraga enjoy a great school system with a voluntary senior exemption."
Davis said Measure A's flat tax complies with this "difficult legal landscape" and gives Piedmont Unified School District long-term stability.
"Our school board is being proactive (in not waiting for the outcome of Borikas vs. the Alameda Unified School District parcel tax case that could affect Piedmont)," said Davis, who is a lawyer and campaign precinct chair for Measure A. "Waiting for the Legislature to do something is not a great way to plan a budget."
Clark said the board is being imprudent and acting "like its hair's on fire."
"The court may soon resolve the Borikas lawsuit," said Clark, who has lived in Piedmont since 1973. "Let the dust settle so that Piedmont will know the rules for a new tax, then we can proceed prudently and equitably."
Davis said that if Measure A doesn't pass, it would "devastate the crown jewel of our community."
Measure A money is slated for teacher recruitment, training and retention; ensuring that textbooks and technology are up to date; securing math, science and technology programs; and funding music, visual and performing arts. Davis said that although parcel taxes would "take a bump" initially, the board has reduced the annual "escalator" cap from 5 percent to 2 percent.
"Measure A allows for controlled and limited growth," Davis said. "In the long term, the measure represents a decline in taxes from the previous measure."
Schiller doesn't buy that. He said if the flat tax takes effect, the smallest parcels and people on a fixed income will be most affected.
"The school district's chart demonstrates, for example, that the almost 1,000 smallest home parcels will have their taxes hiked by more than 15 percent -- $318 per year; the 165 biggest home parcels will have their taxes cut by almost 33 percent -- $1,141 per year."
He also said that Measure A's proposed exemption for Supplementary Security Income recipients has an "absurdly low income ceiling."
"Alameda County's 'very low income' starts at $31,250 per year; the national poverty level is $11,170," Schiller said. "Nothing is lower than Measure A's 'low income' of $8,700 per year."
Following their presentations, the panel fielded questions from the audience. Clark said the problem he has with Measure A is that Ace Hardware will pay the same tax as his elderly neighbor.
"My 92-year-old neighbor will be grossly affected by this tax," Clark said. "Piedmont can have the money, but do it in an equitable manner. People shouldn't be driven out of their homes."
Davis replied that Piedmont can't afford a tax exemption for seniors.
"San Marino has a senior exception (in its parcel tax), and they've had to sell a school for $6 million," Davis said. "Measure A provides stability for the long term."
One audience member asked: "What would PUSD do if the courts (Borikas vs. AUSD) deem a variable tax legal before Measure A passes?"
"We could possibly put it to the vote and see if voters want to change it," Davis replied.
In summation, Clark urged a "no" vote on Measure A.
"It will cause pain when no pain is necessary," Clark said. "The legal landscape is always uncertain. That doesn't mean we act impulsively."
Davis wrapped up by thanking his opponents for their "advocacy and passion."
He pointed out that there were five "packed houses" in Piedmont that night -- "Oklahoma!" playing at Piedmont High, three school parent nights, and the League of Women Voters forum.
"Our schools are the center of all that," Davis noted.