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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
The article below details the sad tail of the open space district that couldn't. Back in around 2001 or so, voters passed a parcel tax/fee to fund the District. The measure was subsequently struck down by the courts as needing a 2/3rds vote. So, now the District is required to give the money back.

I won't be asking for a refund because I personally believe the District is a good one that is trying to cater to the needs of mountain bikers. Granted, the trails are no Henry Coe or Demo but it's a start.

This is the same open space district that has been proactively organizing night mountain bike rides--Santa Clara County Open Space District. It's not MidPen. Different districts. Different management styles. Different attitudes towards bikers.

Shiloh


By Paul Rogers
Mercury NewsT

The check's almost in the mail.

In a rare government refund, roughly two-thirds of property owners in Santa Clara County are expected to be eligible to receive as much as $130 each later this year to end a long-running legal battle between a taxpayer group and a San Jose agency that purchases land for parks and wildlife.

Last July, $57 million became available when the California Supreme Court struck down a $20 per-parcel fee put in place in 2001 by the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority, saying passage of the fee required two-thirds approval by the voters in the district.

What's under way now is the property tax version of putting the toothpaste back in the tube.

The open space agency's board is expected to approve a settlement today requiring it to tell the owners of all 321,000 parcels that were improperly assessed the fee that they can have their money back.

Eligible for a check is anyone who owned a house, apartment building or business property between 2002 and 2008 located within the open space authority's boundaries, which include all of San Jose, Campbell, Milpitas, Morgan Hill and Santa Clara, as well as much of unincorporated Santa Clara County.

"It's their money. If they want it back, they are entitled," said Patrick Congdon, general manager of the open space authority. "I'm disappointed, but the court has ruled."

Gilroy is not included, because the city did not join the district when it was
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formed in 1994. Nor are Los Gatos, Saratoga, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Sunnyvale and other cities that are in an adjacent open space agency, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District.

Environmentalists plan to urge residents not to apply for the refund so the district can keep as much of the money as possible. The fee made up two-thirds of the agency's $12 million annual budget.

"This is a really easy, what I would call a no-brainer, for open space," said Melissa Hippard, director of the Sierra Club's Loma Prieta chapter, based in Palo Alto. "The agency really needs the money. Here's a perfect opportunity to do something special for open space in your own backyard."

The agency has preserved 14,494 acres since the mid-1990s for hiking, biking, horse-riding and wildlife habitat, including land around Calero Reservoir, adjacent to Alum Rock Park and near Henry Coe State Park. It also has made grants to cities for bike paths and urban parks.

But most of that land was purchased with state bond money, or an earlier $12-per-parcel assessment that was not overturned by the court. Because taxpayer lawsuits froze the other funding, the agency hasn't been able to build trails or hire rangers to patrol much of it, and about three-quarters remains closed to the public.

To return the money to Silicon Valley landowners, the open space agency will hire a claims manager to send letters in July to the owners of all 321,000 parcels in the district.

The owners then will have 90 days to ask for a refund. A typical property owner who owned a home all six years the fee was collected, from the 2002-03 fiscal year to the 2007-08 fiscal year, would get $130. Those who owned property for part of that period would be eligible for slightly more than $20 for each year.

The agency also plans to set up a toll-free phone number and Web site by the end of next month. And it plans to use county assessor's records, and vast databases run by the U.S. Postal Service and Lexis-Nexis, to help track down former landowners who paid the fee and moved.

If a property owner who paid the fee died, his or her estate can apply for the refund.

"People are going to have the right to get their refund. That's why we filed the lawsuit," said Doug McNea, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, which sued in 2002. "We pushed for people to get proper notification. We're satisfied."

McNea's group won its argument that the fee, technically a benefit assessment that was approved by mail-in ballot in 2001, violated Proposition 218, a state law designed to require more government fees to meet the two-thirds vote threshold.

Checks will go out in the mail by October or November, said Bill Parkin, general counsel for the open space agency.

"It's going to be a pretty simple process for folks," he said. "They will check boxes on the number of years they paid the assessment. We won't require canceled checks or anything like that. We have the assessor's database to cross-check the claims."

Over the six years it collected the fee, the open space agency amassed $51 million, plus another $6 million in interest. Under the settlement agreement and prior case law, the agency will keep the $6 million. Another $7.4 million will go to pay the legal bills of Tony Tanke, a Davis attorney who represented the taxpayer group for seven years.

Typically, in most class action claims, only about one-third of eligible people bother to turn in award forms. With the rough economy, however, both sides in this case expect that number to be higher.

After the refunds, the agency's budget will have a gaping hole. In a future election, 2012 or later, the agency probably will place a sales or property tax on the Santa Clara County ballot and seek two-thirds approval, said Congdon.

"People want to get in touch with their natural world. We hear that more and more, that people want to get away from the asphalt, and get up into the hillsides and walk in a meadow," he said. "It's something they've lost."
 

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jorgemonkey said:
Another $7.4 million will go to pay the legal bills of Tony Tanke, a Davis attorney who represented the taxpayer group for seven years

I'm in the wrong profession
Ain't that the truth. A million bucks a year? As the old saying goes, some people steal with a gun; others with a pen.
 

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This is such a frustrating issue for me. Doug McNea is a coworker of mine, and we've argued over this issue in the past. It just seems like such a waste of time and money to try and collect all of these $20 fees. Seems like it would have been smarter to just say, "Hey, we screwed up. Lets make sure it doesn't happen again."

So they are attempting to return $51M. Lets say half of it gets returned, less the $7.4 legal fees, leaves the tax payers association with $18M. Now where does that money go?? How much does the Santa Clara County Open Space District have to spend from their existing budget to get this money back to people? Lame.
 

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maleonardphi said:
This is such a frustrating issue for me. Doug McNea is a coworker of mine, and we've argued over this issue in the past. It just seems like such a waste of time and money to try and collect all of these $20 fees. Seems like it would have been smarter to just say, "Hey, we screwed up. Lets make sure it doesn't happen again."

So they are attempting to return $51M. Lets say half of it gets returned, less the $7.4 legal fees, leaves the tax payers association with $18M. Now where does that money go?? How much does the Santa Clara County Open Space District have to spend from their existing budget to get this money back to people? Lame.
In the current fiscal crisis I wish I could agree with your sentiment about "Hey, we screwed up. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again." I wish I had the optimism about our current legislature to make sure it doesn't happen again. I also wonder how many other things they've screwed up that we are going to be paying for for a long time .....

I'm not sure if I'll take the refund or not, I haven't been in my home since '03 so my refund would be even less. Maybe I just talked myself out of taking it...
 

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Well, my point was that maybe the taxpayers association should just say that they learned a lesson, and rather than wasting $7.4M of taxpayer money on a lawyer to correct it, just cut your losses. I mean, do the voters get a say in whether or not they want their money going to a lawyer to shuffle their money around? What would be a crazy is if the taxpayers association ends up collecting less then the cost of the legal fees. Then this whole fiasco will seriously be a waste of everyones time and money. Except for the lawyer of course.
 

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Don Despacio said:
Didn't the "Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association" recently change it's name to "A Bunch of Selfish Pricks Making Work for Lawyers"?
So you, don't care if somebody starts imposing illegal taxes on your wages?

I'm supportive of mountain bike land and access, but with taxes going up in this state (and probably soon to go up more) this state may be losing more tax revenue than just because of the recession.
 

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derek said:
So you, don't care if somebody starts imposing illegal taxes on your wages?

I'm supportive of mountain bike land and access, but with taxes going up in this state (and probably soon to go up more) this state may be losing more tax revenue than just because of the recession.
The first statement seems to imply negative intent on the part of the OSA. One thing to keep in mind is that the SCCOSA is a very conservative organization, and at the time when the assessment was put forth for property owners to vote upon, they honestly believed that they were following the rule and the letter of the law.

The thinking was, "Hey, there is a real need for full multi-use open space in Santa Clara county that is not being met by city, county, or state parks. Let's put it to the voters in the district and see if they agree (which they did, by a majority)."

It was not, "Let's see if we can figure out a loophole to impose some 'illegal' taxes on folks and get away with it."

As mountain bikers, we should be very disheartened by the original ruling. I've been to almost every property that the OSA owns, and I can tell you that we are missing out by not being able to ride those places. The rescinded assessment would have funded public access to most, if not all of them.

-D
 

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Thanks!

Diesel~ said:
The first statement seems to imply negative intent on the part of the OSA. One thing to keep in mind is that the SCCOSA is a very conservative organization, and at the time when the assessment was put forth for property owners to vote upon, they honestly believed that they were following the rule and the letter of the law.

The thinking was, "Hey, there is a real need for full multi-use open space in Santa Clara county that is not being met by city, county, or state parks. Let's put it to the voters in the district and see if they agree (which they did, by a majority)."

It was not, "Let's see if we can figure out a loophole to impose some 'illegal' taxes on folks and get away with it."

As mountain bikers, we should be very disheartened by the original ruling. I've been to almost every property that the OSA owns, and I can tell you that we are missing out by not being able to ride those places. The rescinded assessment would have funded public access to most, if not all of them.

-D
Sounds like you are pretty informed. That was my impression, but I don't live in the county. My impression from the reports on events the OSA has done is that they would also be receptive to community service type projects from the community.
 

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Diesel~ said:
The first statement seems to imply negative intent on the part of the OSA. One thing to keep in mind is that the SCCOSA is a very conservative organization, and at the time when the assessment was put forth for property owners to vote upon, they honestly believed that they were following the rule and the letter of the law.
You are taking the statement out of context. My statement has little to do with the intent of SCCOSA or how they use the money. More a response to Don Despacio's quip about the SVTA. I'm glad to hear that they are a conservative association, we need more of those around.

Diesel~ said:
The thinking was, "Hey, there is a real need for full multi-use open space in Santa Clara county that is not being met by city, county, or state parks. Let's put it to the voters in the district and see if they agree (which they did, by a majority)."

It was not, "Let's see if we can figure out a loophole to impose some 'illegal' taxes on folks and get away with it."
Again, not my intent to say they were looking for a loophole and the per-parcel fee did pass by a majority (my memories getting bad but I likely voted for this too). Unfortunately Prop 218 says it needed to pass by a 2/3 majority. Is prop 218, right or wrong? I have no idea.

Diesel~ said:
As mountain bikers, we should be very disheartened by the original ruling. I've been to almost every property that the OSA owns, and I can tell you that we are missing out by not being able to ride those places. The rescinded assessment would have funded public access to most, if not all of them.

-D
I'm actually disheartened by the crazy amount of laws that we have in this state that seem to restrict absolutely everything we do.

After hearing everything good said about SCCOSA in this thread I won't be seeking a rebate.

-Derek
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
The amount of money spent in legal battles is atrocious. I think we can all agree on that.

The service the open space authority provides by protecting open space and making trails available to mountain bikers is a good thing. I think we can all agree to that.

The key issue is that the courts found this to be a tax not a fee. 2/3rds vote is required to pass a tax, simple majority for a fee. The open space district thought, with good reason, that this would be viewed as a fee and only need a simple majority. They lost after an expensive legal battle.

2/3rd vote is difficult to achieve, always. Not to derail this thread and turn it into an argument about super majority requirements versus simple majority, the bottom line is that by requiring a super majority, taxes are very difficult to pass. People will say, if the reason is good enough then voters will vote overwhelmingly for it. It sounds good enough but that oversimplifies the issues.

At the end of the day, in addition to the minority (1/3 of the voting populace) the real people served by super majority requirements are political consultants. They, like the lawyers, thank us!
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
And...

Just opened the paper to find that the Merc editorialized on the subject. It's basically the sentiment I was trying to express yesterday.

Editorial: Let the Open Space Authority keep your money

Mercury News Editorial
Posted: 05/28/2009 08:00:00 PM PDT

Before long, property owners in the five cities that make up the Santa Clara County Open Space Authority will get a letter explaining how to reclaim about $130 they've paid over six years in a fee that later was ruled illegal.

If you're out of work, or if you're not a believer in the authority's mission to preserve open land for parks and wildlife, then by all means send in your claim. You're entitled to a refund.

But if you do believe in the authority's goals - if, say, you appreciate the 14,494 open acres it already has helped preserve - and you can live without that long-gone $130, then let it go. Leave your dollars where they are to help the authority continue its good work.

The agency misstepped in levying a $20 per parcel annual fee starting in 2001. It followed the rules to obtain property owner approval for a fee, and lower courts upheld the levy. But last year the California Supreme Court ruled that it was really a tax that required a two-thirds vote. By then the district had collected $51 million.

The assessment would have made the authority a stronger player in preserving hillsides and farmland. But even smaller amounts can make a difference, since many of these deals are done in partnership with other groups and individuals. For example, in 1999 the authority contributed $1.25 million to the purchase of Rancho Canada de Oro, 2,500 acres near Calero Reservoir. It was a fifth of the price, but it helped
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make the deal possible.

The natural beauty of open land that surrounds Silicon Valley is inextricably tied to its quality of life. Purchasing land is the only way to permanently preserve it for future generations, and the costs will only go up. So if you've gotten along OK without that $130, do the environmentally enlightened thing. Toss that refund letter in the recycling bin.
 

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The Law said:
I won't be asking for a refund...

Shiloh
Me neither.

The Law said:
Granted, the trails are no Henry Coe...
The Santa Clara Open Space Authority owes a choice piece of land adjacent to Coe, the Palassou Ridge. It would be so awesome to have that open and to have trails connecting with Coe and Harvey Bear parks!

Map: https://www.openspaceauthority.org/activities/pdf/Palassou directions handout.pdf

HarryCallahan said:
Sounds like you are pretty informed...
Look at the group photo on the SCCOSA Citizen's Advisory Committee page, "Diesel~" is the tall guy in the back.


///Charlie
 

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derek said:
You are taking the statement out of context. My statement has little to do with the intent of SCCOSA or how they use the money. More a response to Don Despacio's quip about the SVTA. I'm glad to hear that they are a conservative association, we need more of those around.

Again, not my intent to say they were looking for a loophole and the per-parcel fee did pass by a majority (my memories getting bad but I likely voted for this too). Unfortunately Prop 218 says it needed to pass by a 2/3 majority. Is prop 218, right or wrong? I have no idea.

I'm actually disheartened by the crazy amount of laws that we have in this state that seem to restrict absolutely everything we do.

After hearing everything good said about SCCOSA in this thread I won't be seeking a rebate.

-Derek
Sorry if I misinterpreted your comments, and thanks for not asking for the $ back.

-D
 

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HarryCallahan said:
Sounds like you are pretty informed. That was my impression, but I don't live in the county. My impression from the reports on events the OSA has done is that they would also be receptive to community service type projects from the community.
Thanks. I've been involved with the agency, in different capacities, for some time. They do set aside 20% of their funding each year for community projects within the urban area.

-D
 
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