Gina Nelmar was one of 33,664 property owners who received a letter from the city informing her of a proposed increase to her streetlight-maintenance assessment.
It would be a 560-percent increase, from $12.38 per year to $81.71.
“This is utterly ridiculous,” Nelmar wrote on Facebook. “Way to go Santa Clarita. Do we really have a choice unless we want to live in the dark?”
Actually, the answer is yes. Nelmar, like everyone else affected, received a ballot asking her to vote to approve such an increase. Voting no would maintain the status quo and force the city to figure out a different way to comply with state law, according to Special Districts Manager Kevin Tonoian.
The state law in question is Proposition 218, passed in 1996. It’s a very complicated piece of legislation, but the pertinent yet contradictory parts are these: It doesn’t allow the rate to be incrementally adjusted because when the voters approved it, there was no provision to allow the city to adjust rates each year; yet the taxpayers must vote to approve any increase.
Currently, the city has been making up the approximately $2.8 million difference through a general property tax called ad valorem. Tonoian and the city’s engineer’s report for the Santa Clarita Landscaping and Lighting District Fiscal Year 2018-19 said the city wouldn’t use the ad valorem money for this purpose if this increase passes.
City Communications Manager Carrie Lujan said 25,000 property owners currently are paying the required rate; this vote is for just the 33,664 that aren’t.
This also isn’t the first increase of its kind. Lujan and Tonoian said that the city has put similar ballots before affected property owners 98 times since Proposition 218 went into effect, and all 98 times resulted in approved increases.
The engineer’s report also shows that the city next year would pay Southern California Edison $8.95 million of the $15.9 million total cost to take ownership of all the lighting and purchase light-emitting diodes (LED).
Further confusing matters is that some property owners received ballots asking them to vote on not only the lighting-district increase, but also on a landscaping-district assessment. Tonoian told the city council at Tuesday’s meeting that some people are being asked to vote for an increase in landscaping and lighting; others are voting on decreasing landscaping and increasing lighting (Councilmember Bill Miranda said he was part of this group).
“This voting methodology stinks to high heaven and is very unethical,” James Farley told the council. “This is not transparency in government. It is lie by obfuscation by government.”
These votes cannot currently be separated, but Tonoian, responding to a question from Councilmember Bob Kellar, said the votes on the two assessments could be separated and still comply with state law. “The challenge with doing that is it does create confusion amongst residents … because, again, street lighting and landscape maintenance are part of the same district,” he said.
“I can appreciate what people are saying,” Kellar responded, referring to the confusion. Cameron Smyth and Marsha McLean had expressed minutes before.
Councilmember Laurene Weste, who received a letter and ballot, said she was “shocked” and “not impressed.”
“I don’t agree with it at all,” she said, calling for additional information. “What I’m seeing is hopelessly confusing.”
Property owners have until Jan. 22 to submit ballots, either by mail in the enclosed postage-paid envelope or in person at City Hall. However, public comment is scheduled for that night during the city council meeting.
Developers whose projects are not yet developed but are within the affected areas appear to get as many votes as units they’ll build. But once those units are developed, the people who buy the property and become property owners would pay the full rate, Lujan said.
Anyone who doesn’t submit a ballot won’t be counted. A majority of ballots returned must be marked yes for the increase to take effect.
Tonoian said that typically 25 to 30 percent of ballots get returned. “In this instance, I would expect to see a higher return.”
Reaction on Facebook was mixed. Greg Tilston called it “fraud.” Carole Paterson-Thompson wrote, “It’s a bunch of B.S.! Like our property tax money isn’t high enough?”
On the other side, Rena Davenport and Christian Lanz calculated that had the city increased from $12.38 to $81.71 over 20 years, it would amount to $3.47 a year. “If they had raised it $3.40 per year over the same 20-year time span, would anyone have even noticed?” Lanz wrote.