Debate heats up over Measure S

Lone opponent at debate says tax is unfair and business friendly.

By Jonathan Friedman/Special to Malibu Times

With the Measure S election less than three weeks away, representatives from both sides debated the issue last Wednesday in Santa Monica. Representing the proponents of the $225 parcel tax were teachers’ union President Harry Keiley and PTA representative Rochelle Lewis-Fanali, while Santa Monica resident Don Gray argued alone against it.

Gray said the major flaw with the measure was that the $225 parcel tax did not do enough to mitigate the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s financial problems. If it is approved, the tax will generate $6.2 million for the district. That will be enough money to bring back the 66 classroom teachers who have received layoff notices, the elementary music program, some of the library coordinators and two of the nurses. But many other district employees and programs, more than $7 million worth of cuts, will still remain cut unless the district can get extra funding from the cities and additional help from other sources.

“I think it’s unfair that we sold voters in this city that unless S passes, these dramatic cuts are going to take place,” Gray said. “Well, the fact is a lot of these cuts are going to take place even if S passes.”

But Gray’s opponents fired back that trying to save at least some of the programs was better than nothing.

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“Will it fix everything? No,” Lewis-Fanali said. “We have other battles to fight. But we also have to pass Measure S if we’re going to get anywhere close to closing this huge budget gap that is facing our district.”

Gray said more money could be generated for the district if the tax were based on the square footage of the property rather than a flat tax. When the committee that created the tax proposal took a scientific poll of district voters on different concepts, it was nearly a dead heat between those who said they would favor a flat tax and those who said they would approve one in which a property owner were charged $60 per parcel plus $7 per square foot. But Lewis-Fanali said the committee voted down the square footage option because it would have cost more for most people and it was not legally sound. Laura Rosenthal, co-chair of the Yes on Measure S campaign, agreed.

“The square footage tax may be used in other districts, but it has never been challenged in court,” she said. “And in cities like Malibu and Santa Monica, that is likely to happen.”

Gray suggested there is another reason for not choosing the square footage tax. He said the committee feared it would no longer get support from the business community, especially the large hotels in Santa Monica, which would have to pay substantially more money under the square footage plan.

“Business gets off cheap with this,” Gray said.

Planning Commissioner and education advocate Deirdre Roney said that is a false accusation. She said neither city’s business community had threatened not to support a tax if the square footage version were chosen.

“Both chambers of commerce have always supported every parcel tax, and they continue to support our schools in other ways,” she said. “If advocates thought the square footage option would be legally defendable, we would have gone for that. The bottom line is that whatever gives the most resources to children is what we advocates will fight for. And we are confident the business community would be at our side, even if it would require them to give more money.”

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Doug O’Brien, a Measure S opponent, said he believed another factor was involved in the choosing of the taxation method, Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR). SMRR has been an influential group in Santa Monica for more than 20 years. Most of the city council members in that city and members of the SMMUSD Board of Education were endorsed by SMRR during their campaigns, and many feel it is almost impossible to be elected to either body without an endorsement. O’Brien said the committee knew SMRR would never support a per-unit tax.

“They (SMRR) don’t want the renters to have any rent increase at all,” he said. “They don’t care about the single-family home owner because they assume they’re all rich.”

Rosenthal said that is not true, adding that the per-unit tax is another one that has never been challenged in court. She said the state Constitution requires that taxes be charged by parcel, and to try any other kind would be a risk.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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