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The following letters and other commentary express only the personal opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Piedmont Civic Association.

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May 16 2019

City Administrator Paul Benoit describes Piedmont’s financial state.

“Piedmont’s financial position, year over year, can be described as ‘STABLE’ at best.”

Maintaining stability requires significant discipline and focus and we have done a good job of it. In recent years we have been working hard to look beyond simply maintaining stable services, and have been exploring opportunities to meet the needs of the future and to improve both the quality and delivery of services. Piedmont is facing, and will continue to face, significant and costly challenges that will need to be addressed – and most are related to the condition of public facilities and infrastructure.

Relative to the City Budget and our ability to make needed investments, it is important to recognize that Piedmont’s General Fund is dominated by property-related taxes, which make up nearly 70% of total revenue. Property based taxes are fairly predictable, with the exception of the Real Estate Transfer Tax.

Because City revenue is derived primarily from property related taxes we are able to make long-term budget projections with a good degree of confidence; additionally, it limits our exposure to the risks associated with significant swings in revenue, such as those experienced by cities heavily reliant on sales taxes.

On the downside we have little ability to increase revenue to the City’s General Fund in any meaningful way — absent voter-approved increases in the rate of the Municipal Services Special Tax, also known as the Parcel Tax, or in the Transfer Tax.

For these reasons, we very purposely:

  •  focus on the delivery of basic services and core programs;
  •  budget carefully and conservatively; and
  •  work diligently to safeguard our financial position by mitigating, to the extent possible, the impact of rising expenses which the City has little control over – particularly CalPERS related benefit costs which constitute an unfunded liability of just over $25 million.

On this latter point, the Council has proactively established a program of pension cost-sharing with employees and has curtailed retiree medical benefits for new hires.  These two initiatives, taken together, slowed the growth rate of our Underfunded Liabilities and will save the City millions of dollars in benefit-related expenses over the years to come.

Another significant action to buffer the effects of rising pension costs was the establishment of a Pension Rate Stabilization Fund, also known as a Section 115 Irrevocable Trust Fund, with the Public Agency Retirement Services – or PARS.

To date, the City Council has approved a total transfer of $2.75 million to PARS from the General Fund. One key benefit of this initiative is that funds deposited with PARS may achieve higher earnings due to less restrictive investment policies than apply to City funds invested in Local Agency Investment Fund.

As a result of the CalPERS decision to reduce the planned rate of return (Discount Rate), the City’s annual pension contributions are projected to increase from the current $2.2 million (7.5% of City revenue) to $5.5 million (13.3 % of City revenue) by 2029. This equates to a cost increase of approximately 132%, while City revenue over this same 10 year period is estimated to increase by only 35%.

As soon as 2023, and potentially continuing through 2031, the increase in mandatory pension contributions is projected to result in General Fund expenses exceeding revenue. When we face these net-negative revenue years, the City will be in a position to stabilize the General Fund by drawing down on its PARS account to pay pension costs.

Overall, prior City Councils and the current Council, working together with staff, have applied wisdom in managing the City’s limited financial resources. Piedmont now has a modest Reserve of just under $5 million, which represents 17% of our operating budget. Absent a catastrophic event, that amount should be of significant help in responding to an emergency or addressing unforeseen circumstances.

While there are no established policies to guide what constitutes “reasonable”, the reserve for the City of Piedmont is restricted by the City Charter to no more than 25% of the Operating Budget.

To put our City’s reserve in perspective, at the end of last fiscal year Emeryville, with a population similar to Piedmont’s, maintained a reserve of $30.3 million, which equates to approximately 76% of their General Fund; Albany’s was $8.8 million, which is 45% of their General Fund; Berkeley had a reserve of $84 million or 55% of their General Fund; and Oakland’s was approximately $150 million or 24% of their General Fund.

In addition to maintaining a modest reserve, the City has been making consistent, long-needed transfers to the Facilities Maintenance and Equipment Replacement Funds, and has also made much needed investments in our IT Systems, with a goal of bringing our use of technology into the modern era.

At the start of this Fiscal Year the Equipment Replacement Fund is projected to have a balance of $2.75 million – which, assuming we continue to make the planned annual transfers from the General Fund, should be sufficient to address the schedule for equipment replacement into the future.

The Facilities Maintenance Fund is projected to have a balance at the start of the year of only $4.8 million. This amount is far short of what is required to address accessibility, life-safety, life- cycle, and efficiency issues of our city’s facilities and property.

Piedmont’s facilities, like so many of the homes in Piedmont, are old and expensive to maintain. While aesthetically pleasing, most of our facilities are in need of significant repair and renovation.

On the whole, our community facilities and infrastructure have been kept largely functional, but it is time to devote the attention and investment necessary to meet community needs, let alone current safety or accessibility standards.

  •  Miles of sidewalks and pathways are in poor condition, and our City Engineer has estimated that we could spend on the order of $11 million on sidewalk and trail repair alone.
  •  To keep the Pavement Condition Index of our streets from deteriorating will require an estimated annual paving expenditure of approximately $1.5 million – up from the current $1 million – and this is assuming a competitive bid environment. As you know, the Engineer’s estimate for the repaving of Magnolia Avenue was $1.3 million. The sole bid submitted was for $1.7 million. So, the estimated $1.5 million required to maintain the condition of our streets could actually have increased to $2 million or more.
  •  The Veterans Hall and Recreation Building are virtually in the same condition and configuration as when they were originally built 50 to 100 years ago. Bringing them to where they should be would require an estimated investment of $6 to 7 million.
  •  The Community Pool cannot remain open much longer without substantial investment. While short-term fixes may postpone the eventual closing, safety issues are significant and the pool is losing an estimated 1 million gallons of water per year via unidentified leaks. Based on the recently completed Aquatics Master Plan, the cost of a modern and safe facility that meets community needs is estimated at between $12 million and $15 million.

Our beloved City Hall has significant needs rarely seen by the public. Low, open ceilings with exposed wires, water intrusion during storms, fire safety and accessibility issues are just a few of the problems.

At times, I hear comments asserting that the City does not have the space needed to support our programs. The fact is we have the “space”. We just need to make the investment needed to address the efficiency, functionality and accessibility issues that limit program opportunities as well as use by staff, the very young, and seniors.

The bottom line fact is that many of our facilities and amenities are inefficient, have significant condition issues limiting usage, and are not where they should be relative to life, safety, and accessibility standards – let alone to where they should be for a community like Piedmont.

Like the School District’s initiatives to invest in modernizing the Elementary Schools and High School to meet 21st Century needs, it is time to apply a similar focus to improving our City facilities and infrastructure.

In recent years, under the leadership of the City Council and with the support of city staff, there has been the political and organizational will to take a fresh and realistic look at our facilities and systems and to make the initial investment needed to develop a clear understanding of the issues and the opportunities for improvement.

While we have been doing the work necessary to develop that understanding—- the reality is that the City’s financial position, in the best of times, will only support an incremental approach to completing the work that needs to be done.

Unfortunately, for many facilities, an incremental approach will not get us to where we need to be.

To summarize:

Maintaining the current condition of our street paving, addressing unsafe sidewalks and pathways, and implementing priority pedestrian and bicycle safety projects will cost an estimated $23 million.

Factoring in the Recreation Building and the basement of City Hall adds up to $7 million. To address the pool and Veterans Hall, add another $17 million. Linda Beach Park improvements are estimated to cost $7 million. Improving Coaches Field could cost up to $4 million. All together these projects total $58 million.

Looking to the future, barring a natural disaster, bringing our facilities and civic infrastructure into the 21st century will be the City’s biggest challenge and greatest opportunity for the betterment of the Piedmont community.

With attention and investment our facilities can continue to serve the community for another 100 years. Doing what has to be done will take time, focus, persistence, vision and leadership. To our good fortune, we have all the right people in place, with the right mix of vision and talent, to meet these challenges.

Paul Benoit, Piedmont City Administrator

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author.
May 15 2019

The Piedmont School District contracted Dr. Timothy McClarney of True North Research for a Tax Survey and the results were presented April 24. Plainly taxpayers are more receptive to a square foot tax of building than the current flat rate levy. Dr. McLarney’s survey report states on p.18: “More tax rate sensitivity for flat rate / less tax rate sensitivity for square foot version.” Dr. McLarney confirmed this verbally.

On p. 7 the survey shows a preliminary voter test with no ballot arguments presented. The survey polled a $3,056 flat rate and a $1.25 square foot tax; both garnered favorable 73-74% definite/probable approval. However this was not an equivalent comparison. $3,056 is a 15% increase over the current $2,656 flat tax. The $1.25 tax generates 25% more revenue than the current flat tax. This is revealed in the May 8 Staff Report which shows that the current $2,656 generates $10.4 million, and that an additional tax of 25 cents per square foot will generate $2.6 million, a 25% increase, for a total of $13 million.

Conclusively, the Final Ballot test is shown on pages 15-17. The Final shows definite/probable votes after all positive and negative ballot arguments are presented within a 5% margin of error. The 25% revenue increase of $1.25 square foot received a 73.5% approval. The 15% increase flat rate of $3,056 received a 62.1% approval on the poll. 66.67% would be needed to pass. Unquestionably a $1.15 square foot tax, equivalent to the $3,056 tax, would poll higher than 73.5%.

Piedmont taxpayers have generously supported our schools and the School Board will now hopefully respect the wishes of voters by placing a single $1.15 square foot tax building tax before voters for virtually certain approval.

– Rick Schiller, Piedmont Resident

Survey > 2019-04-24 VI_A_PollingResultsPresentation_0

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author.
Apr 28 2019

League of Women Voters of Piedmont Annual Meeting & Luncheon

With Guest Speaker Lateefah Simon
on Philanthropy, Race, Equity and Social Justice

Image result for lateefah simon

The 11:00 a.m. speech is open to the public at no charge.

Friday, May 10, 2010 10:00 am – 1:00 pm

40 Highland Ave, Piedmont, CA

Join the League of Women Voters Annual Membership Meeting and lunch on May 10, 2019. The guest speaker, Lateefah Simon is President of the Akonadi Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting the development of social change movements to eliminate structural racism and create a racially just society. The organization’s vision is to transform the climate in Oakland to one of compassion, respect, and dignity for youth and young people of color.

As a nationally recognized advocate for civil rights and racial justice, Ms. Simon has over 20 years of executive experience in advancing opportunities for communities of color and low-income communities in the Bay Area.

Ms. Simon has received numerous awards for her work, including the MacArthur Genius Fellowship and the Jefferson Award for extraordinary public service. She has been recognized by the Ford Foundation, the National Organization for Women, Lifetime Television, O Magazine and was named Woman of the Year by the California State Assembly. In 2016, Ms. Simon was elected to serve District 7 on the BART Board of Directors and was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California State University’s Board of Trustees. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Tipping Point Community.

The Annual Meeting will start promptly at 10:00 am, followed by the speaker at 11:00 and lunch at noon. Lunch is $30. To reserve your spot, please visit the LWVPiedmont.org by May 3, 2019 and click the Annual Meeting link. This event is open to the public, there is no fee for the speaker portion of the program.

Apr 22 2019

School Board Discussion Wednesday, April 24 of Building Square Footage Tax Basis

Recently I published a letter advocating a progressive per square foot of building tax, that no owner pay more than $4,999, unimproved lots would be taxed at $1099, a SSI/SSIW exemption be included, a 2% annual cost adjustment and an optional income based senior exemption with at most a 2% revenue reduction. Locally the per square foot of building tax is used to support Alameda, Berkeley Emeryville, and West Contra Costa County Schools.

Mr. Raushenbush published a letter opposing my square foot building tax proposal; I first presented this to our School Board Jan. 9. The per square foot of building tax is a more equitable progressive tax than the previous five tier parcel with commercial differentiations levy that Piedmont used for 27 years. Mr Raushenbush also states that a per square foot of building tax is not legally viable despite it being in common use in other School Districts.

This Wednesday April 24, 2019 at 7 p.m. Piedmont School District meeting will include the results of a survey concerning a per square foot of building tax and the existing flat rate parcel tax. The final ballot result at p.15 of the report shows definite/probable yes at 73% for the per square foot and 62% for the flat rate. 67% is needed to pass.

Rick Raushenbush was Chair of the School Board at the Dec. 11, 2012 emergency meeting when the existing 27 year partially progressive tax was replaced with current Measure A flat rate tax. Chairman Raushenbush stated the 27 year tax “had a variety of progressivity to it.” (Dec. 12, 2012 video at 14:40) http://piedmont.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=851

The result of going from the previous tax with “progressivity” in 2012 to a flat rate tax resulted in the following. Of the 3,921 School tax parcels in Piedmont, 76% of Piedmont homes are on parcels under 10,000 square feet (“sf”). The 2012 flat rate “emergency” tax raised their previous $1,989 and $2,260 taxes to $2,406, a 6% to 21% increase. Taxes on undeveloped parcels, another 2%+ of taxpayers, went from $1,009 to $2,406, a 238% increase. Today the $2,406 tax is $2,656. At the same time a small percentage of taxpayers received significant reductions. Owners of large parcels, commercial buildings and multi-unit buildings saw reductions of 7% to 80%. Some large commercial buildings previously taxed at $5,052 went to $2,406, a 52% decrease. Lots of 20,000 sf went from $3,378 to $2,406, a 29% decrease. A multi-unit building went from $11,907 to $2,406, an 80% decrease.

The 2012 Board expressed regret at creating the above inequities. When I presented my square foot progressive tax idea to the School Board earlier this year, the regret was again sincerely expressed. The School Board wants to adequately fund our schools and in the most equitable manner possible. The history of other School Districts and their use of a per square foot of building tax:

I. ALAMEDA’s June 2008 tax Measure H imposed different tax rates on residential and commercial property. Alameda was sued by Borikas (as the case is commonly identified) and Alameda prevailed in Superior Court. Borikas plaintiffs appealed and the Appeals court reversed in favor of Borikas Dec. 2012.

March 2011 Alameda passed Measure A which abandoned the previous Measure H tax and imposed 32 cents “per building square foot.” Measure A also has an annual $7,999 cap and unimproved lots at $299. The same Boricas plaintiffs sued (Nelco, Inc. v. Alameda Unified School District, Alameda County Superior Court, #RG 08-405984 Measure A) to invalidate Measure A. Sep. 2011 Judge Frank Roesch, Alameda County Superior Court . . . rejected all the Plaintiff’s claims and dismissed the petition in the case (Alameda Patch Sep. 13. 2011). The per square foot tax of Measure A remained in place.

Nov 2016 Alameda passed Measure B1 which duplicated and continued the “per square foot of building” tax of Measure A. Alameda was then sued on the same issues by the same Nelco plaintiffs that had opposed Measure A in 2011. In Feb 2018 Alameda prevailed in Superior Court. See May 4, 2018: http://www.alameda.k12.ca.us/news/view?d=x&id=1525422895157

Since 2011 Alameda School District has used and continues to use the per square foot building tax. Alameda has been sued twice specifically on it’s per square foot tax. Both times Alameda Schools prevailed in court and uses the per square foot of building tax since 2011.

II. EMERYVILLE schools (“Emery”) passed a per square foot of building tax in July 2007. When considering a renewal of its previous 15 cent per square foot building tax, Emery relied on the legal opinion of two attorneys from Fagan, Friedman, Fulfrost, LLP and the opinion of a third legal expert on school tax challenges from Lozano, Smith. A fourth attorney that specializes in litigating educations issues, John Affeldt, was on the Emery board at the time. Measure K passed Nov. 2014 and imposes “fifteen cents of building area per square foot” for 20 years. In summary since 2007 the per square foot of building tax has been and is used in Emeryville unchallenged. Piedmont uses the same legal firm of Fagan, Friedman, Fulfrost, and LLP

III. BERKELEY passed School tax Measure H Nov 2010 which imposed a per square foot of building tax at 6.31 cents and 9.46 cents respectively on residential and commercial buildings. Nov 2016 Berkeley passed Measure E1 which imposed 37 cents per square foot of tax on “all taxable buildings.” Likely Measure E1 eliminated the residential commercial differentiation because of Borikas. Berkeley Schools use the per square foot building tax and has not been challenged.

IV. WEST CONTRA COSTA COUNTY started using per square foot of building tax in 2004; the tax imposed 7.2 cents per square foot of building and $7.20 on unimproved property. An identical tax was renewed 2008 with Measure D and again Nov 2012 with Measure G. 1/4/2013 plaintiffs Bypass 93 Properties & American Standard properties represented by David Brilliant, the Borikas attorney, sued to invalidate Measure G ( Contra Costa 1/4/2013 MSC13-00024). The same plaintiffs also sued the San Leandro School District. The result of the litigation against West Contra Cost is that in 2016 West Contra Costa passed Measure T which retained the 7.2 cents per building square foot and eliminated the unimproved property differentiation. Unchallenged Measure T renewed to 2024 and West Contra Costa continues to use a per square foot building tax. (Legislation AB2954 passed Sep 2018 now allows a different unimproved property rate. The plain language is readily understandable as I am not an attorney.)

Dannis, Woliver & Kelley, a noted Law Firm that drafts and administers Parcel taxes, commented on Donlinger, a Jan. 2019 appeals court decision concerning per square foot of building tax: “Last week (Jan 2019), a California appellant court validated a local agency’s special tax calculated on the basis of square footage of improved structures. In Donlinger . . . the statute involved mirrors the statutory authority used by school and community college district to levy parcel taxes, including the requirements that the tax be “uniform” . . . The court concluded: “We do not read the statute to require a uniform effect or outcome, but rather uniform application.””  https://www.dwkesq.com/per-square-foot-parcel-taxes-upheld-by-court-of-appeal/

Mr. Raushenbush states the per square foot of building tax is legally suspect. The per square foot of building school tax is used in Alameda which prevailed in 2011 and 2018 to legal challenges specific to its per square foot tax. There have been no legal challenges to per square foot school taxes in Berkeley and Emeryville. West Contra Costa after litigation uses a per square foot of building tax. Mr. Raushenbush raised the issue of litigation cost for Piedmont schools; all School Districts take litigation costs as seriously as Piedmont, they will not invite litigation and the per square foot tax is now unexceptional. There is no case of a per square foot building school tax being litigated which forced the School District to abandon the per square foot tax.

The groups of Plaintiffs in the various actions against Alameda Schools are large commercial property owners. In Piedmont a litigant would most likely be a homeowner who would then likely suffer a significant social stigma. With a reasonable cap in place, I suggest $4,999, the very few commercial owners that previously paid $5,052 before 2013 would have no incentive to sue. While virtually anything can be contested with a financially willing client, the likelihood of a per square foot of building School tax being challenged by a Piedmont resident is unthinkable.

Mr. Raushenbush states that unimproved lots should be taxed the same as homes “as the Piedmont schools make those parcels valuable.” A few examples of the 100+ unimproved lots currently taxed at our $2,656 flat rate:

Assessor’s Number       Lot Size             Tax Value                    Address
11-855-28                              nine sf                     $729                           558 Crofton
11-878-40                             21 sf                         $1,056                        1110 Portal
11-882-56                            38 sf                         $1,557                         1370 Sunnyhills
48C-7180-23                       200 sf                        $729                           5474 La Salle

There are at least 40 unimproved lots smaller than 1,000 sf. The owner/taxpayers of these low value unbuildable lots will never enjoy the increase in value created by our schools. Unimproved parcels and especially those that can never be improved should not be taxed at the same flat rate as a home.

Mr. Raushenbush misstates my income based senior exemption proposal by writing that a senior exemption will “impose a significant burden on remaining taxpayers.” A “significant burden” would be concerning to taxpayers if it were true, however Mr. Raushenbush omits key parts of my letter. I wrote: “The tax may (underline added) include an income based senior exemption at a rate to be determined and would not cost the District more than 2% of what the total tax revenue would be without this exemption.” My specific proposal is if the exemption is included, the Board can set qualifying income levels so that the total revenue reduction is no more than 2% or less; or not have any senior exemption which is traditional in Piedmont. Mr. Raushenbush’s concern of a senior exemption “significant burden” is baseless.

While no tax can be uniformly fair to all taxpayers, a per square foot of building tax is the best option Piedmont has to continue providing adequate revenue for our schools in the most equitable manner available. The final ballot results of the Tax Survey P.15 shows definite/probable yes at 73% for the per square foot and 62% for the flat rate. 67% is needed to pass.

I ask the Board to put a square foot of building tax before voters this year.

Rick Schiller Piedmont resident

April 22, 2019

Editors Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author. 
Apr 17 2019

Our Piedmont community will soon be asked to renew the School Support Tax that funds roughly 25% of the Piedmont Unified School District’s (PUSD) budget. Because the State does not adequately fund education, the School Support Tax is critical to maintaining the excellence of Piedmont schools.

The current School Support Tax (Measure A), approved by the community in 2013, taxes each taxable parcel the same amount. In recent letters, Mr. Rick Schiller advocates what he terms a “progressive tax” to replace Measure A. Mr. Schiller proposes that the next tax: (1) apply a uniform tax rate to the square feet of buildings on a taxable parcel, rather than a uniform amount to each taxable parcel, thus shifting more of the cost of schools to owners of large homes; (2) impose a lower rate on unimproved lots; (3) include an “income based senior exemption”; and (4) continue to include “compassionate SSI and SSDI exemptions,” which exempt property owners below certain poverty levels.

The next School Support Tax should fairly allocate a community cost and must indisputably comply with the law. Mr. Schiller’s proposal exposes PUSD to litigation risk that I believe would be imprudent to accept. Further, I do not consider Mr. Schiller’s proposed tax to be “progressive.”

I must start with the litigation risk (excuse the detail), which could impose unaffordable costs on PUSD and potentially leave our schools unfunded. Piedmont’s School Support Tax is a “qualified special tax” authorized by California Government Code § 50079, which provides such a tax “means special taxes that apply uniformly to all taxpayers or all real property within the school district, except that unimproved property may be taxed at a lower rate than improved property.” (Emphasis added).

In Borikas v. Alameda Unified School District, 214 Cal.App.4th 135 (2013), the Court invalidated Alameda’s school parcel tax (Measure H), which taxed residential and commercial properties, and commercial properties above and below 2000 square feet, differently. The plaintiffs argued that Section 50079 “means all taxpayers and all real property must be treated the same, and school districts are not empowered to treat different kinds of taxpayers, and different kinds of real property, differently.” Id. at 147. The Court agreed, holding that Section 50079 “does not empower school districts to classify taxpayers and property, and impose different tax rates.” Id. at 151. The Court found it could “sever” the invalid parts of Measure H, and upheld a parcel tax of $120 per parcel. Id. at 166-67.

Mr. Schiller, and others before him, have argued that Borikas does not bar a tax under Section 50079 based on a uniform rate per square foot (either of land or buildings). Borikas did not expressly rule on such a tax. However, Borikas found it must follow Section 50079’s text, and the text refers to “special taxes that apply uniformly to all taxpayers or all real property.” It does not refer to a uniform rate, but to a tax that applies uniformly.

The tax imposed on small vs. large parcels/homes would be different under a “per square foot” tax. Further, looking to Section 50079’s legislative history, Borikas rejected Alameda’s claim that it would be unfair for “all parcels [to] bear the same tax, regardless of size,” noting: “The Legislature was aware, however, that uniform parcel taxes were considered ‘more inequitable’ than ad valorem property taxes because all parcels, regardless of size, are subject to the same tax. … Nevertheless, the Legislature made no adjustments or provisions in this regard.” Id. at 158 (emphasis added); accord id. at fn. 27.

Nothing since Borikas has removed the risk that a Piedmont “per square foot” tax under Section 50079 will be ruled invalid. In 2014, SB 1021 was introduced in the California Legislature to amend Section 50079 to expressly authorize a “per square foot” tax—it did not pass. In 2018, the Legislature adopted AB 2954, which amended Section 50079 to allow school districts to tax unimproved property “at a lower rate than improved property,” but did not authorize a “per square foot” tax.  While the reference to a “rate” rather than an “amount,” provides an argument that uniformity refers to “rate” also, there is no ruling on point.

Mr. Schiller notes that the Alameda Superior Court has twice upheld Alameda School District’s later parcel taxes, which impose a “per square foot” taxes. However, the Alameda Superior Court also upheld Measure H, and the lawsuits against Alameda’s later taxes were settled before the First District Court of Appeals, which issued Borikas, ruled on appeal.

Mr. Schiller also relies on Dondlinger v. Los Angeles County Regional Park, No. B284932 (2019), but that case addressed Pub. Resources Code § 5566, a different statute, which expressly states that a park district may establish a “rate” which “is to be applied uniformly.” Further, Dondlinger is a Second District decision; Piedmont is in the First District, which is governed by the Borikas decision.

Until the First District Court of Appeals or the California Supreme Court upholds a “per square foot” school parcel tax, or the Legislature amends Section 50079 to expressly allow such a tax, I do not think it is prudent for PUSD to take the litigation risk of asking Piedmonters to approve such a tax. Litigation could cost $100,00 to $500,000, depending upon motions, trial and appeals. PUSD does not have that to spare. Moreover, to feel secure in spending the tax revenue, PUSD would have to file a validation action, but that simply ensures any litigation starts quickly.

While it is possible that no Piedmont property owner would challenge such a tax, there is no way to remove the risk. (Note that Alameda’s parcel taxes have been challenged three times). PUSD could not spend the tax revenue until any litigation is resolved, as PUSD would have no way to pay back the taxes collected if the tax ultimately were held invalid. Further, because PUSD cannot fund its school budget without a parcel tax, if the tax was challenged, PUSD would have to run another parcel tax election immediately, at additional significant expense. Under Mr. Schiller’s proposal, PUSD (and every Piedmont family with school children) would take this risk so that owners of small homes could pay less than owners of large homes. There are times when accepting litigation risk is necessary. This is not one of them.

I also believe that the School Support Tax must be fair to Piedmont residents. The Piedmont schools benefit every resident. For nearly everyone, our children have gone, are going, or will go to school. Piedmont residents have shared the cost of public education no matter where they are in this cycle. Moreover, the excellence of the Piedmont schools is why Piedmont homes are so valuable. Further, an available and excellent public education is fundamental to civil society, and we all have a civic duty to ensure it. Asking the owner of each taxable parcel to pay the same amount seems fair to me. I include unimproved parcels as the Piedmont schools make those parcels valuable.

A “progressive” tax generally is perceived as taxing wealthy people more by increasing the tax rate at higher levels of wealth or income, and is supported by the notion that those who have more money can afford to pay more tax toward community needs. In claiming his proposed tax is “progressive,” Mr. Schiller equates a building’s “square feet” as equivalent to wealth or income, and assumes that owners with more “square feet” can afford to pay more. That may be true in some cases, but certainly not all.

Square feet alone does not establish the value of a home (consider age, quality or location). Owning a large home does not establish wealth other than the home itself (it may have been bought long ago) or a ready ability to pay higher taxes (a young family may have stretched to buy a home with sufficient bedrooms, or a retiree bought a large home years ago).

I also do not support an “income-based senior exemption.” Age does not determine whether a homeowner has a ready ability to pay the School Support Tax.  Nor is current income a true measure of wealth or ability to pay.

Moreover, per the last census, roughly 20% of Piedmont residents were over 65. Assuming roughly 20% of homeowners also are over 65 (it could be higher), exempting any significant number would either underfund the schools or impose a significant burden on the remaining taxpayers.

Further, under Proposition 13, those of us who have owned a home here longer (and are usually older) pay less property tax than young families who have bought a home more recently.  PUSD’s existing income-based SSI and SSDI exemptions (see Section 50079(b)) provide relief to those who are truly in severe financial distress, regardless of their age. That seems an appropriate balance between a homeowner’s ability to pay and the needs of the community.

I support the current Measure A structure—each taxable parcel paying the same amount to support our schools, with narrow exemptions for those truly in financial distress.

Richard W. Raushenbush, Former Piedmont School Board Member

Mar 15 2019

Dear Editor,

Since changing to Daylight Saving Time (DSL) last Sunday, media opinionators are talking about making it year-round.  Permanent DSL is a terrible, dangerous idea.  Setting the clocks ahead one hour moves an hour of morning light to the end of the day.  That’s great between March 21 and September 21, when there is more daylight than night.  But for the winter-half of the year, we need more light in the morning when kids are going to school.

Our children go to school at about the same time that commuters are starting their treks to work.  Darkness and early morning sun in commuters’ eyes create dangerous hazards.  Later in the day, schools end before most commuters return home, so evening darkness is not as dangerous.

As it is, Daylight Saving Time ends in November, nearly two months past the September 21 Equinox.  Shortening, not lengthening, the DST period would make mornings safer for our children and grandchildren.

Yours truly,

Bruce Joffe, Piedmont Resident

Mar 6 2019

Increased drug and alcohol usage among Piedmont students. 

On Wednesday, February 27th, the Piedmont School Board had their bi-monthly meeting to discuss and vote on accepting or rejecting a grant for the implementation of a Student Resource Officer (SRO) at the Piedmont and Millennium High Schools.

Randall Booker, Superintendent, presented the plan for Piedmont’s SRO with a grant that would fund this project for the next three years. Driven by the results of the Healthy Kids Survey which raised alarm regarding increased drug and alcohol usage among students, Booker’s goals for the program were to strengthen transparency and improve the school culture. With more adults with eyes on campus that know the landscape and the students, and a clear MOU, Booker shared that he believed implementation of an SRO would support Piedmont’s principle of being a “district of continual improvement”.

Chief Jeremy Bowers of Piedmont Police Department and partner in the creation of the SRO plan, outlined the department’s current involvement at the secondary Piedmont schools, reporting that 400+ calls have been made to the Police Department from the schools from 2013-2018 – which is 1- 2 calls per week, all in addition to having officers in front of and around campuses patrolling traffic. Bowers believed that an SRO would help improve the learning environment, and be a constructive complement to the Piedmont School District.

Officers from both Los Gatos-Monte Sereno and Atherton Police departments shared their experiences with an SRO, calling it a “very successful program” that has led to the creation of important personal relationships that allow students to feel safe calling the SRO during a crisis. Having someone who understands the culture of the school and knows how to interact with the students has led to a form of educational discipline customized for each student. They also shared some of their other programs, like the juvenile and vaping diversion programs, which have been constructive additions to the school environment.

Booker and Bowers eased some worries by outlining the detailed plan for Piedmont’s SRO, including ways to prevent overcriminalization; however, board members seemed weary over the fact that the SRO would be armed, as did community members.

According to Booker’s survey, 75.3% of parents said they were concerned about the firearm, and 56% saw no benefit in the program. 56% of students also said they saw no benefit in the program, and that it set the wrong tone for students, especially for those who already feel marginalized.

Mr. Kessler, representing the Association of Piedmont Teachers, expressed concern with the implementation of an SRO, stating he was against having an adult filling so many roles on campus.

Thirteen high school students from Piedmont and Millennium High all shared their thoughts agreeing that this program would hinder their school environment. Some gave suggestions for solutions, including implementation of the vaping diversion program to prevent drug use, and active shooter drills to help students feel better prepared in a school crisis.

I was not in support of an SRO, and felt that if the concern was drug and alcohol use, there were much easier and more effective solutions to prevent this usage. Plus, no studies have shown that an SRO has decreased drug and alcohol use, making me think this program is a waste of money and resources.

After voicing their opinions, the Board voted 4-1 against accepting the grant for an SRO with President of the Board, Amal Smith wanting to accept the SRO grant.

Booker continued to suggest modifications to the plan, like having the SRO be located in the Piedmont Police station, but there was little flexibility available in the grant proposal, therefore a revised plan may be futile.

by Julie Huffaker, Piedmont High School Senior

Mar 6 2019

In 2013, our current flat rate per parcel School Tax was passed by voters to replace the previous Tax based on a five tier parcel size levy, a modestly progressive tax. Our School Board expressed sincere regret at eliminating the progressive tax but believed it had no choice other than to tax all parcels regardless of size at the same rate because of the 2012 Boricas v Alameda USD Appeal’s Court decision.

Of the 3,921 School tax parcels in Piedmont, 76% of Piedmont homes are on parcels under 10,000 square feet (“sf”). These taxpayers previous $1,989 and $2,260 tax became $2,406 in 2013, a 6% to 21% increase.  Owners of undeveloped parcels went from $1,009 to $2,406, a 238% increase. However, a small percentage of taxpayers benefited as owners of large parcels, commercial buildings and multi-unit buildings saw reductions of 7% to 80%. Some large commercial buildings previously taxed at $5,052 went to $2,406, a 52% decrease. 20,000 sf lots went from $3,378 to $2,406, a 29% decrease. A multi-unit building went from $11,907 to $2,406, an 80% decrease.

A progressive tax based on per square footage of building space is used in Alameda and other districts. The current Alameda tax passed by 74% in 2016 was challenged in 2017 on the validity of levying a tax on building square footage. Mar 4, 2018, the Alameda Schools per square footage of building tax was found legally valid in Alameda County Superior Court. Jan 31, 2019, a California appellate court validated a local agency’s special tax calculated on the basis of square footage of improved structures (Dondlinger v. Los Angeles County Regional).

Piedmont Schools previously embraced a partially progressive tax and now has an excellent progressive tax option that is far more equitable by using building per square footage. I propose the following progressive tax:

(1) Tax will be at $1 to $1.05 per square foot of building size. The District will determine the exact rate needed to provide funding at slightly above the current level.

(2) $4,999 will be the maximum tax for any building.

(3) Currently some multi-parcel estates are subject to multiple taxes and some are subject to one tax (GC 53087.4). So that all multi-parcel estates are treated uniformly and given that many multi-parcel estates have large homes that will be assessed at the maximum tax, a contiguous parcel exemption will be included. No property owner for a single home will pay more than $4,999.

(4) $1,099 will be the rate for unimproved lots.

(5) A 2% annual cost adjustment will be included.

(6) The tax may include an income based senior exemption at a rate to be determined so as not to cost the District more than 2% of the what the total tax revenue would be without this exemption.

(7) Compassionate SSI and SSDI exemptions will be included. These are not aged based.

        Rick Schiller, Piedmont Resident

Editors’ Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author.
Feb 12 2019

February 11, 2019

Randall Booker, Superintendent, Piedmont Unified School District – 760 Magnolia Avenue – Piedmont, CA 94611 rbooker@piedmont.k12.ca.us

Robert McBain, Mayor, City of Piedmont, 120 Vista Avenue – Piedmont, CA 94611 rmcbain@piedmont.ca.gov

Re: Retention of Police Officer to Serve Full-Time in Piedmont Unified School District

Dear Messrs. Booker and McBain:

I write to you on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Piedmont. Our organization supports the importance of transparency in local government and a high level of education within the Piedmont Unified School District. It is our understanding that the Board of Education will be voting during its upcoming February board meeting on the issue of whether to employ a full-time police officer in the school district as a School Resource Officer. We are also informed that should the Board of Education approve the employment of this officer, the City Council will then vote on whether to approve this position since the officer would be a member of the Piedmont Police Department.

Our League Board has discussed this issue and we believe that a decision by the Board of Education and the City Council on this matter is premature at this time, and as such, would be counter to our positions on local government and education.

Specifically, we are concerned with transparency and the ability of the Board of Education and the City Council to make an informed decision on this matter with the information currently at their disposal. For example, we are concerned there is a lack of information surrounding the explicit objectives of having a police officer on school campuses, what training the officer would be required to fulfill, what weapons the officer would carry or retain on campus, what the officer’s objectives would be, how success or failure will be measured, and what consequences may arise for the students as a result of having an officer on campus. These are just several among many unanswered questions that we feel should be addressed prior to any formal decision-making processes and, in fact, long before students, teachers and parents are surveyed on their views on the issue of hiring such a police officer to serve in the schools.

We thus urge both the Board of Education and the City Council to exercise due diligence in gathering information about both the benefits and potential consequences in hiring a School Resource Officer, and to fully communicate and share information with all stakeholders in this community about these details before holding any formal vote on the matter.

Sincerely,

Nancy A. Beninati,President, League of Women Voters Piedmont

Jan 29 2019

I’m all in favor of youth sports; however, when Coaches Field was first conceived and approved by our city council, the neighbors above strenuously objected to field lights. The project was approved with the express promise from the council that lights would never be put on the field. That promise is as valid today as when it was made.

A few years ago, the request to put lights on the field was put before the council. When reminded of the commitment to those who would be most impacted, the spokesperson for the youths’ sports league responded that promises were made to be broken. What an appalling role model for our community’s children. With the latest plan that will be coming up for approval, it appears that this sentiment has gained traction.

We as a community should honor our promise to the neighbors of Coaches’ Field. When the children who utilize the field ask why there are no lights on the field, they should be told that there has always been a high demand for playtime on our city’s fields, however, a promise was made when the field was developed, and that promise is being honored. Isn’t that the take away that we all want our children to have? Promises are just that, and a person of integrity always honors his or her promise.

Anne Cobbledick Gritzer

Opinions expressed are those of the author.