May 13 2014

Measure H: Pros and Cons of Theater Renovations

Alan Harvey Theater:  Costs and Alternatives

With approximately two weeks left before the June 3 election on Piedmont ballot Measure H, preferences are heating up.

After the Piedmont Unified School District (PUSD) approved $100,000 of Modernization Funds  for conceptual design and planning of safety and accessibility improvements of the Alan Harvey Theater (AHT), a contract was signed with Quattrocchi Kwok Architects (QKA), the selected finalist. A preliminary construction budget of $5 million was established by PUSD in 2012,  anticipating providing safety and accessibility improvements, the PUSD May 23, 2012 stated goal. The cost of the  improvements escalated to the currently proposed $14.5 million after conceptual drawings led to further improvements and expansion. (The bond issue is for $13.5 million.) Originally the AHT was included in the Seismic Safety Bond, but was removed when engineers assured PUSD that structurally it met “life safety” seismic standards.

The Yes on H campaign has garnered solid support from the school community and performing arts enthusiasts, engendering a comprehensive campaign including signage, phone calls, and glossy literature. The No on H campaign has attracted individuals concerned about the high costs of the “renovation” and the need for further evaluation prior to approving the bond measure.

Yes on H – pro:

  • “All Measure H funds will stay in our community to benefit Piedmont students.”
  • “State modernization funds and private donations will reduce the cost to homeowners.”
  • “An independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee will ensure funds are properly spent.”

No on H – con:

  • Piedmont should not go to the legal limit of  borrowing prior to evaluating District wide needs: all funds from Piedmont school bonds stay in Piedmont.
  • Taxpayers will be responsible for repaying $13.5 million in bond funds plus interest.
  • All bond instruments require compliance with bond issuance specifications.

As with most Bay Area communities, Piedmont property values have risen and exceed their prior economic downturn values.  New buyers of Piedmont homes have well established credit, assets or job security.  The additional amount on their property tax bill to pay for theater renovations will be minor when added to their parcel tax obligation of $10,000 to $20,000 plus per year.  The following information on tax amounts was provided by the School District:

“What impact will Measure H have on my taxes?

……the actual tax rate will not be determined until the bonds are sold. Based on current projections, and a 13-year repayment schedule, the District estimates an increase of $17 per $100,000 of assessed value in the first six years. After existing bonds are paid off in 2020-21, the estimated tax rate would be $50 per $100,000 of assessed value in the remaining seven years.”

Calculations indicate a property valued at $1 million would pay $500 per year in the final 7 years of the bond.

Long time Piedmonters, tax conscious residents, retirees, and others view the additional burden of the bonds as not reasonable or appropriate. Piedmonters currently pay over $2,400 per parcel per year for school operations alone and hundreds more for the interest and principle on existing school bonds used for prior rebuilds and renovations.  Piedmont school parcel taxes are currently the highest in the Bay Area. Opponents of Measure H want the School District’s evaluation of alternatives and priorities to occur before a bond is approved by voters.

Accessibility issues have been a primary driver of the theater renovation because of antiquated restrooms, steps prohibiting wheelchair movements, seating problems, and stage configuration limiting performers.  Those involved with the schools and theater arts have pointed out the desirability of an enhanced theater for both students and the community.

Architects differ on correcting the problems to achieve an appropriate, high-level theater renovation. Some Piedmont architects have found the plans wanting and deserving of revisions prior to approval of the bond measure. While others approve the plans as presented to the School Board.

Vote by or on Tuesday, June 3. Remind your friends and neighbors to vote.

Most Piedmonters will vote by absentee ballot.  Ballots must be received by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters or your local polling place no later than 8 p.m., June 3, 2014. Post marks are not sufficient.  Postage has increased to $.91 to mail your ballot.

Click for more information on where and how to vote.

Read more from advocates on both sides of Measure H:

Theater usage by “Yes on H”

Improvements by “Yes on H”

Understanding accessibility by “Yes on H”

Why No by “No on H”

Renovation cost by “No on H”

Accessibility requirements by “No on H”

Editors’ Note:  The Piedmont Civic Association does not support or oppose ballot measures or candidates for public office.  Comments are welcomed below.  

5 Responses to “Measure H: Pros and Cons of Theater Renovations”

  1. The Piedmont School Tax is more than double to literally 100x times other School support taxes in the state. The Piedmont tax is the only school tax in the top ten school districts with a school tax that does not have a senior exemption. The Piedmont SSI exemption was claimed as being compassionate to seniors by tax proponents; I characterize the SSI exemption as a cruel charade as only two homeowners have qualified and it is unknown whether either is a needy senior.

    The School Board was asked to include an income based senior exemption in the 2013 parcel tax, perhaps using the Federally determined county very low income level of $32,000. About 80 Piedmont residents would have qualified and this equates to a loss in tax revenue of 2%. This 2% is an inconsequential $50 annual increase for everyone else. The School Board stated an income based senior exemption is likely illegal; no legal opinion was provided. In fact, four local districts – Moraga, Orinda, Berkeley and Oakland – use this exact income based senior exemption and most of their income limits are set higher than the $32,000 level.

    Measure H proponents have been silent on the negative effect of increasing the tax burden on an already highly taxed electorate and especially those on fixed income. The School Parcel tax in 2014/15 will be $2,454 plus the current school bond payment of $159 per $100,000 (check the left side of your tax bill). PCA’s information suggests the average bill will go up another $500. I am not convinced we are getting good value for our money.

  2. While the political clout of the school groups means that virtually anything they put before the voters will likely pass, the passage of Measure H will be very troubling.

    – The current renovation lacks set storage, a multi-media facility, a building designed for excellent acoustics and full rigging facilities. The renovation is costing 40% more per square foot than the recently completed San Leandro theater with its state-of-the-art facilities.

    – The theater needs seats, carpet and HVAC. The district has already set aside funds for this work.

    – Measure H advocates insist that the ADA and safety upgrades are “legally required” yet will not produce any document from a governing agency forcing these upgrades.

    – Measure H advocates assert that the Alan Harvey Theater is a community asset, yet the school board will not lower the current high non-school use fees.

    – The board has stated they may consider not having next year’s 2% escalator on the parcel tax should Measure H pass, as the district is currently in the best financial shape it has been in years. Regardless of Measure H, there need not be a parcel tax escalation.

    – The current Piedmont parcel tax and taxpayer bond cost burden is the highest in the state with no other district coming close to Piedmont’s $2,454 tax for 2014. The school board wishes to keep the bonding capacity and taxpayer cost at the legal maximum with no regard for fixed income seniors. The board refused to include a senior exemption in the last parcel tax and stated an income based exemption was illegal when four surrounding districts use that income approach.

    Had the school board and district simply said that we want this expensive renovation and we don’t care about reasonableness because we can get away with it, I could accept it more than the current rhetoric.

  3. Dear thoughtful and concerned Piedmont residents,

    While I sympathize with the difficulty imposed by parcel taxes (both the one for the City as well as the one for the Schools) on truly low-income residents (who may or may not be seniors, fixed-income may not precisely correlate with low income, particularly in Piedmont), there is not an easy public policy solution to this puzzle.

    Already, every year since 2004, the State has redirected 25% of school district’s share of our base county property taxes to our City and Alameda County. The rationale for this transfer was to compensate Cities and the County for the reduced revenue they have been receiving since the State decided to permanently lower the relatively progressive Vehicle License Fee. The loss to schools of stable public revenue from local county property taxes amounted to $272 million (yes, over a quarter of a billion dollars) in Alameda County in the latest reported year. Even worse, the State and Alameda County auditors have been deceiving the voting public and taxpayers by continuing to report that those property tax dollars are spent on public education. In Piedmont’s County, Alameda, our county’s website reports that 41% of our base property taxes fund public education when, after the State’s revenue-diversion instructions are followed, only 27% of our base property taxes are provided to schools. Therefore, the State has asked schools to effectively subsidize the expenditures of cities and counties by commandeering 25% of school district property taxes every year to fund perceived obligations which the State created. I don’t say this to place blame but simply to improve public understanding of the tangled web of unintended consequences which has occurred by robbing Peter to pay Paul, and thereby improve public understanding of why school districts continue to need supplemental money more than other public entities in spite of the passage of Prop 30.

    Partially through this invisible and unreported diversion of a sizable portion of the school district’s property tax share, the City of Piedmont has been able to buy 6 new squad cars, 1 brand-new ladder truck, fill vacancies in our police force, pay overtime to parks employees to swiftly clear wind storm debris, and many other wonderful city services which we are very fortunate to receive but which we receive, in part, courtesy of the involuntary sacrifice of our school district.

    To add insult to injury, under the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) which was designed to improve equity in the state’s distribution of education funding to supplement base county property taxes, a larger slice of State supplemental funding is distributed to school districts with very high-need students (those living in poverty, foster care, or with limited English language skills). Thus, a smaller slice of the pie will be delivered to districts like Piedmont with few of these students. As a consequence, in 2020-21 when the LCFF is projected to be fully implemented, Piedmont is projected to be the LOWEST FUNDED public unified school district in California, where funding for public education remains 50th among U.S. states plus D.C. on a per pupil, cost-adjusted basis. Furthermore, as a noteworthy reminder, the anemic goal of full LCFF implementation in 2020-21 is simply to provide enough State money to fund California schools to the level at which they were funded in 2007-08 (13 years prior, with no inflationary adjustment). Therefore, unless state funding norms and revenue collection methods change, Piedmont may not be able to continue to provide a reasonably good public education program without maintaining or increasing our local school parcel tax to supplement very minimal state education provisions. Sadly, again, due to public revenue-raising restrictions imposed by Sacramento (and the courts) there are very few levers at our legal disposal for doing so.

    A better public understanding of how, and how much, public education is funded in California and, thus, in Piedmont would be useful to this discussion since Piedmont’s school district is a product of the inflexible and dysfunctional state-imposed funding system which has suppressed public education financing for decades and caused the widespread deterioration of our public education resources and facilities across the State.

    I know that many, many Piedmonters witnessed and remember the era (even as they come to terms with rising costs) when past generations of students benefitted from a much more richly and consistently funded public education system which was completely funded by public revenues (not reliant on the significant additional sacrifices of parents and young families for private ‘expected donations’) and when real property tax rates were much higher. Then, the collective commitment to great public education made California great and that continuing commitment and collective spirit has continued to keep Piedmont’s public education system relatively attractive. Even though it requires sacrifice from all of us and perhaps unappealing financial choices for some, it is a requirement for maintaining Piedmont’s vibrancy as a multi-generational community. Newer homeowners have moved into Piedmont accepting that the lion’s share of their property taxes will be used to subsidize the gold-standard City services of longer-established Piedmont property owners. That is because newer homeowners value a multi-generational community and are willing to accept the financial sacrifice to contribute to it (as inequitable as the system is in some cases). Conversely, most publicly-subsidized Piedmonters also value a multi-generational community and willingly support necessary investments in a public education system (like upgrades to shoddy buildings) which enable Piedmont to compete as one of the better-funded (and extremely efficiently-managed) systems.

  4. All Piedmont homeowners pay a parcel City Services Tax which pays for the “new squad cars . . . and swiftly clearing storm debris” and other essential City services. The tax amount is tiered to lot size and not length of residency. Regardless of living in town for five minutes or fifty years, we all receive the same level of services. (I see recent signs of a more efficient use of taxpayer finances and a more forthright approach from City Hall; if I am correct we will all equally benefit)

    In a statewide environment of limited financial support for schools, Districts with similar demographics and a desire for a quality school system evolve their funding needs in different manners. State number one ranked San Marino School District has a similar demographic and high home value as Piedmont. San Marino does have a small commercial tax base, but that in itself would not explain how San Marino is able to fund its exceptional school system with school parcel taxes of $1,169 while Piedmont uses a $2,406 parcel tax per household. Additionally Piedmont keeps the resident bond load near its maximum. All residents in Piedmont and San Marino benefit from the same high property values which a quality school district, good regional location and excellent city services generates – as do all Cities with similar qualities. San Marino also includes a senior exemption, as do many other school districts. Piedmont provides no such relief.

    Even in Piedmont financial resources are not unlimited for all families. Efficient use of funding is essential. Is Measure H the most efficient use of funds to create the best possible Theater? Are STEM programs more in need of funding than Performing Arts at this juncture? Is the total Piedmont taxpayer burden excessive?

  5. In response to some of the anti-Measure H arguments in the article and comments:

    The Alan Harvey Theater renovation is the District’s highest priority capital project. The Measure H opponents have asked that question and been given the answer repeatedly. Most of the District’s schools were upgraded during the Seismic Safety Bond Program. The other portions of PHS and PMS are in much better shape than Alan Harvey. While the anti-Measure H folks try to suggest that STEM programs need money more, that is misleading. Programs are funded by the District’s General Fund (based on state funding, donations and the School Support Tax) while capital projects are funded by bonds. The Alan Harvey renovation is a capital project–bonds cannot be sold to finance STEM programs. Moreover, the correct question is why the Performing Arts facility does not have the same level of quality, safety, and accessibility as the facilities serving PHS’ other educational programs. We are trying to solve that.

    The claim that Measure H will exhaust the District’s bonding capacity is not true. First, the District has no other bonding needs on the immediate horizon. Second, Measure H would not use up all of the expected bonding capacity even in 2014. Third, the bonds for Witter Field will be paid off in 6 years, at which point the District would have considerably more bonding capacity. This is a non-issue.

    The article reports a “No on H” argument as “All bond instruments require compliance with bond issuance specifications.” Well, true enough. Whenever you sell bonds, you have to comply with the law. So what?

    Mr. McCrea asserts: “Measure H advocates assert that the Alan Harvey Theater is a community asset, yet the school board will not lower the current high non-school use fees.” The District’s fee schedule is on the website. The direct cost fee, available to any Piedmont non-profit, is $43/hour.

    The Measure H opponents don’t deny that there are accessibility issues for disabled persons at Alan Harvey, but seem to believe that nothing should be done until a court or government agency orders the District to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The District does not agree that its goal should be to evade compliance as long as possible, to the detriment of disabled persons seeking to participate in, or view, performing arts.

    Mr. Schiller’s complaints about the School Support Tax ignore the previous debate prior to its adoption. The law does not permit an “income-based” senior exemption. Government Code 50079 provides that a District may “provide for an exemption from those taxes for all of the following taxpayers: (A) Persons who are 65 years of age or older. (B) Persons receiving Supplemental Security Income for a
    disability, regardless of age. (C) Persons receiving Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, regardless of age, whose yearly income does not exceed 250 percent of the 2012 federal poverty guidelines issued by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.” Excluding all seniors, who often have lower property taxes than newcomers to Piedmont, was not proposed by the School Board as it would massively reduce the funds raised by the School Support Tax–either harming the Piedmont educational system or forcing taxes on non-seniors much higher. Piedmont voters overwhelmingly approved the School Support Tax.

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