Feb 22 2016

OPINION: School Tax Not Assessed on Some Piedmont Parcels

No tax on parcels results in over $1 million School District revenue loss.

On February 11th at the invitation of Piedmont Unified School District (PUSD) Superintendent Randall Booker, I met with PUSD attorney Mark Williams to hear his perspective on issues I had raised about the legality of exempting certain assessors’ parcels from payment of the school support tax, Measure A. The discussion turned out to be relatively pointless, however, since the District had already quietly decided to continue all current exemptions based on Mr. Williams’ assurances that these exemptions would withstand a legal challenge. This was done with the concurrence of the School Board in spite of a substantial loss in revenue.

His presentation was thorough — although at times confusing, especially on points seemingly irrefutable. Nine months ago Mr. Williams himself said only owners who qualified for SSI were legally exempted. He now believes the other Piedmont exemptions are perfectly legal, based on his review of case law. However, the relevance of case law is questionable. The very court filing that necessitated Measure A in the first place said, “The courts cannot recalibrate the taxing power statutorily delegated to local entities;; any adjustments in that regard must be made by the state Legislature.”

There was a lengthy discussion about exemptions given to church-owned parcels. The State Board of Equalization defines Measure A as a special assessment tax and not a property tax, and makes it clear that churches, while exempt from property taxes, are not exempt from special assessments. A clause initially in the proposed measure that would have allowed this exemption was not in the full text of the final measure. My research shows that other churches in Alameda County cities are indeed paying their respective school taxes as a special assessment.

The attorney did not cite a law that allows a property owner to exempt only the Piedmont school tax from his other special assessments such as the city municipal services tax. Also, the exemption given to small, unimproved second parcels, which enable an owner to pay the school tax only once, may be an equitable district policy but is evidently not a law that would take precedence over Measure A. After the measure became effective, three owners legally combined their two parcel lots into one, and thereby avoided paying the tax twice without need of an exemption.

The meeting was ended without discussing the single parcel lots that have an Oakland street address but are also partially in Piedmont. According to the measure, parcels partially in Piedmont are to be taxed. Two are paying the tax but ten are not.

In summary, I heard scant justification for continuing the exemptions that I believe to be unlawful based on the documents I have read. The measure itself allowed no such exemptions, and would be unlawful if it had.

Several questions remain unanswered. Why are some parcels in a given group exempted but others are not? For every parcel that is being exempted, I have identified a similar one that is not being exempted — several even side-by-side on the same street. Only 15 of the 77 vacant residential parcels are exempted. The district is well aware that these exemptions are being made but no one has as yet taken responsibility for making them.

At the very least, Piedmont Unified School District owes the taxpayers a plausible explanation as to why it makes sense to continue these exemptions. Seven more parcels have been added since the measure became law. What does the district gain in exchange for giving up more than a million dollars in revenue over the eight-year life of the measure?

William Blackwell, Piedmont Resident

Read prior Blackwell article. 

Editors’ Note:  Opinions expressed are those of the author.

2 Responses to “OPINION: School Tax Not Assessed on Some Piedmont Parcels”

  1. Much thanks to Mr. Blackwell for his vigorous efforts to gain a straightforward response from the School District concerning illegal exemptions. Most troubling is that at a 24 hour noticed meeting Dec. 2012 we were told by the same Attorney that met with Mr. Blackwell that all parcels must be taxed and taxed at the same rate to comply with the Boricas decision. Voters then approved a tax that levied “on each assessor’s parcel located wholly or partially within the boundaries of the Piedmont Unified School District” (text of tax passed June, 2013). But all parcels are not taxed. The School Board was informed of this in April 2015 and the District is yet to provide an explanation or remedy the situation. Before we are asked for more bond funding, this issue must be resolved.

  2. When, if ever, will PUSD provide a full explanation and accounting for this discrepancy? Until it does, the taxpayers and voters must withhold any future renewal of the parcel tax! There are many of us who cannot gain any exemption from this tax and yet gain no direct benefit from its imposition.

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