Tier parcel tax relief will take another year

Earlier this month, the state Supreme Court let stand a ruling invalidating a tiered parcel tax measure put before voters in 2008 by Alameda Unified. The move also held open an invitation to the Legislature to weigh in on the question of rational classification' of tax rates.

While there had been some hope that the issue would be taken up this year, Assemblyman Rob Bonta - who represents the Alameda area- said last week such a legislative fix is not likely to be pursued until next year.

Bonta, D-Alameda, introduced AB 59 in January to clarify the authority of school districts to levy special taxes including assigning higher rates based on the types of property within its jurisdiction. But the proposal was set aside this spring out of concerns of a potential conflict with the iconoclastic property tax measure Proposition 13, as well as the bill's retroactive reach.

Bonta, however, said in an interview that he has not given up.

I'm absolutely committed to acting on this - the only question now is what is the scope of that action," he said. "Are we going to address the school parcel tax provision of state law or do we move beyond that? What that decision will ultimately be based on will be our research and the advice we will get from legislative counsel."

At issue is a parcel tax, Measure H, which sought to levy residential or small commercial properties at $120 annually, but set a rate of 15 cents per square foot up to a maximum of $9,500 per year on commercial properties larger than 2,000 square feet.

The concept of a tiered tax is not new and has been employed in a number of jurisdictions. It stems from the notion that the owners of a vacant lot should not be taxed at the same rate as the owners of a multi-million dollar commercial enterprise. The idea also carries the distinct political advantage of offering homeowners a lower rate than businesses.

But in a December ruling, the First District Court of Appeal in San Francisco invalidated the tax saying that the state law giving schools authority to place a tax on the ballot requires that the tax rate be uniform for each parcel.

This month, the state Supreme Court upheld that ruling and denied a request that it should be only applied to Alameda.

AB 59, which remains active as a two-year bill, would specify that the state law requiring schools to impose a uniform tax rate "shall not be construed as limiting a school district from assessing taxes in accordance with rational classification among taxpayers or types of property within the school district."

While the bill was intended to apply both to measures adopted in the future and those already on the books - like Alameda - Bonta said the focus now is to clarify the authority for new tax proposals.

Perhaps more problematic, however, are concerns from some powerful taxpayer groups that the bill would result in a de facto split of the property tax roll - that is, imposing different tax rates on residential and commercial properties. Defenders of Prop. 13 have long argued that such a move would require an amendment to the state constitution.

Bonta said his proposal would not change Prop. 13 but merely amend existing statute.