Claremont Insider: LLD Blues

Monday, June 11, 2007

LLD Blues

The City Council tomorrow night will consider how much they will raise the City's Landscaping and Lighting District (LLD) assessment fees. Last month, we posted a commentary on the LLD increase.

The Claremont Courier has also published a couple opinion pieces in the past week on the LLD. (Neither piece is posted on the Courier website.) Last Wednesday, editor Rebecca JamesCourie had an editorial that pointed out that higher local taxes may be discouraging people from buying homes in Claremont.

Saturday's Courier carried an opinion piece by Opanyi Nasiali that noted that the LLD began in 1990 as a $93.00 assessment on properties in Claremont but now has a base rate of $137.16. Claremont property owners also pay a host of other assessments, including the Claremont Unified School District's Recreational Assessment District (RAD). All those local taxes can add up to over a third of property owner's bill, according to Nasiali.

Nasiali's essay also pointed out that LLD and other local taxes undermine efforts to create affordable housing and that a Habitat for Humanities report stated that buyers of Habitat homes can end up paying more in taxes than they do for their mortgages.

Nasiali added that although the LLD is supposed to pay for landscaping maintenance, residents whose driveways and sewer and water lines are damaged by city-owned trees end up having their claims for damages denied by the city and have to foot the bill for repairs themselves. So tell us again, why are we paying the LLD?

As we pointed out yesterday, the LLD was created in 1990 as a stopgap measure at a time when city finances were hurting. Yet, the economy long ago recovered, and the LLD has continued on and gone steadily up with no end in sight. In 1996, when Californians approved Proposition 218, the city was required to put the LLD to a vote. Assessment district votes now require a two-thirds majority (recall last year's failed Parks and Pasture Assessment District), but as long as the city held a vote on the LLD before July, 1997, it could do ratify the LLD with a simple majority.

In large part, Claremont tricked the voters. Former City Manager Glenn Southard and the City Council at the time rolled the LLD vote in with the city's Utility Tax, forcing voters to choose an all or nothing approach. They might not have liked the LLD, but they weren't allowed to vote only on the LLD, and the total cuts in revenue with the Utility Tax included would have been Draconian.

So, in March, 1997, the city ran a referendum called Measure A on both the assessment and the Utility Tax, even though they are very different funding mechanisms. The LLD won under that vote, but did not receive anything close to the 67 percent it would have required on it's own under the new Prop. 218 rules.

One other problem with the LLD is that it creates a kind of fiscal shell game. Tomorrow night, one of the recommendations the council will consider will be to increase the LLD by 5.63 percent - above and beyond the rate of inflation. The city staff report also indicates that if the council approves that increase, the city will be able to reduce its own General Fund payments to the LLD from $728,696.00 to $702,670.00.

The resulting tax cut to the city will free up $26,000.00 to be spent on other unspecified city projects. The reasons the City Council and city staff like the LLD seem clear. Other tax rate hikes must be approved by voters. The LLD has no such oversight. The council can raise the burden on taxpayers and then transfer money around to projects that have nothing to do with landscaping or lighting maintenance.

If the city continues such duplicitious tactics, sooner or later voters will take matters into their own hands.