In November 2018, voters of the Monte Rio Fire District passed a parcel tax to support the fire district. In the intervening months, it was discovered that there was an error in the way those parcels were identified. The creators of the parcel tax measure had meant to exclude low-value parcels (575 of them) from the parcel tax. It turns out that didn’t happen, and many landowners got surprisingly large bills in October. Michele McDonell, the writer of one of the adjacent letters, said her family’s parcel tax bill for low-value parcels alone was over $10,000.
The district knows it needs to correct this problem — the point of contention is how to do that. According to the Monte Rio Fire District’s attorney, the only way to fix the problem is to hold another election to vote on a new parcel tax measure. The current proposal is to do a mail-in election in May. This will cost $15,000 and if the measure doesn’t pass with a vote of 66.7% of registered voters, the corrected parcel tax measure will fail.
McDonell has requested the district get a second opinion. She set up a meeting with the Sonoma County Counsel, the tax assessor and Lynda Hopkins to discuss this issue. This conversation convinced her that the change could be made by a resolution of the board.
The District will be meeting to approve or reject the resolution to pursue an election on Monday, Jan. 20 at 6 p.m. at the Monte Rio Community Center.
— Editor Laura Hagar Rush
Michele McDonell and Dan Fein present two opinions on how to repair the parcel tax error on the November 2018 ballot.
COMMENTARY: A resolution from the board can solve this problem
By Michele McDonell
This is a letter to all interested taxpayers within the Monte Rio Fire Protection District. In November 2018, Measure U was passed by voters to support a paid personnel strategy for the district. Our family supported the measure. We supported it due to the changing need of fire and emergency services in our community. It is with a heavy heart that I send this public communication on behalf of our family. We have utmost respect for those serving the district through the board or volunteer positions, especially our chief, whom we hold in the greatest regard.
Prior to openly supporting the measure, I met with the board president in August 2018 to confirm that no low value parcels were to be included. The meeting provided me information and a direct review of the data that the district was using to model their financial strategy ($500,000); none of my family’s low-value parcels were included. Shortly after, the voter information guide was available, with the Impartial Analysis by Sonoma County Counsel for the measure noting, “All property that would otherwise be exempt from property tax will also be exempt from the proposed tax.” With those two assurances, we openly supported Measure U.
In October 2019, low-value tax bills were received and we were advised that, while the district had no intention of including those parcels, an exception was not possible. In fact, the term used during the board meeting was it was “illegal” to consider such an exemption.
In the past three months, the district has continued to represent the inclusion of low-value parcels as their error. They cite, on advice of their legal counsel, that the only way to correct for this error is by another election (mail-in ballot in May 2020, two-thirds majority approval required).
It is an affront to all taxpayers and residents for the district board to spend money on an election that is within their authority to resolve via a resolution to remove the low-value parcels from the tax rolls and refund the monies paid by the taxpayers for those parcels.
This is the district’s first time at a parcel tax. Based on advice of their legal counsel the measure was crafted with no expressed exemption, which is not only unreasonable and illogical, but presumes a perfection in the tax roll or tax code classification that does not exist. There is basis within the broader language of the measure that requires the district to annually certify the tax roll, thereby providing the opportunity for corrections and special circumstances. In fact, the reason the tax roll is certified each year is to confirm what parcels the district intends to include for their direct charge.
Unfortunately, the district board has demonstrated their lack of experience in this area, choosing to rely on the same legal counsel that crafted the openly acknowledged flawed measure, to promote the option of an election to resolve for the board error. Add to that a recent exchange with a board member, who represented they had never seen the Impartial Analysis by county counsel, even though it was a companion commentary to the full text of the measure in the voter information guide.
The district has two failures in administering this measure. One, the lack of understanding of low-value parcels, of which there are 575 out of approximately 2,700 total parcels within the District boundaries. Two, the lack of understanding that exemptions need to be considered for circumstances that the expressed measure language cannot fully account. A case in point are contiguous parcels that historically (in other special districts) are treated on an ad hoc request basis from the property owner. Another case in point are properties that have a legacy use inconsistent with the current tax code classification, for which the district is required to determine the appropriate direct charge.
I encourage all taxpayers, whether they can vote in the district or not, to email or send written correspondence to the district to request that they reject any resolution that advances the need for an election to resolve their error. Further, that the district consider a resolution that acknowledges the elimination of low-value parcels from the tax rolls beginning in 2020-21 and provides for a refund of taxes paid on those parcels for the 2019-20 tax year and creates an exemption process to accommodate contiguous and other parcels with identified complexities. For the district to do less is a lapse of their fiduciary responsibilities, creating an erosion of public trust within the community that has supported this district for over a century.
The board president’s email is email@example.com.
Michele M. McDonell, firstname.lastname@example.org
COMMENTARY: Another election is the only way to solve this problem
By Dan Fein, Director, Monte Rio Fire Protection District
The Monte Rio Fire Protection District strives to provide public safety services to citizens and property owners in the district and to neighboring districts through mutual aid. In 2019, Monte Rio Fire volunteers responded to more than 840 calls. The need to augment volunteer staff with full time responders has been clear for some time and has never been greater. We were gratified that a super-majority of the taxpayers in the district approved our appeal for the Measure U parcel tax.
The tax was designed to produce approximately $500,000 of additional revenue with the burden spread fairly. The parcel list that was used in that process did not include low-value parcels — ones that the county does not tax because the land value is too low. These are generally parcels that are unbuildable or inaccessible or substandard size, some as small as 500 square feet and some in the river. We believed that since the county didn’t tax these parcels, they were exempt from all taxation.
When it came time to implement the tax, we learned that unlike the county, which has a right under state law to choose not to collect taxes that are based on property value if the value is deemed to be too low, a parcel tax applies to every parcel that is not publicly owned, regardless of value, unless explicitly exempted in the ordinance that was approved by the voters.
The unexpected inclusion of low-value parcels resulted in tax charges of $57,000 more than anticipated and placed an unfair burden on a large number of taxpayers.
When this came to light, the board sought advice on how to exempt the low value parcels. Ms. McDonnell and others have insisted that the board can exclude any parcels that we choose to by simply passing a resolution, but we have been advised repeatedly and unequivocally by counsel that our board cannot alter the terms of an ordinance that was approved by the voters by passing a resolution. Only the voters can change the terms. I have attached a memorandum to this effect that was provided by the district’s legal counsel. (See this attachment in the sidebar of this story at sonomawest.com.)
Given that, the board is moving to place a measure on the ballot to ask voters to amend Measure U to explicitly exempt low-value parcels and to authorize the district to refund taxes already collected on those parcels.
Passage of this measure will assure that Measure U will be applied as originally intended and that affected taxpayers will be made whole. The board is moving with urgency to meet deadlines for the May 5 mail-in ballot. If we do not, the next opportunity will not come until after the deadline for certifying the 2020-21 tax roll, thereby compounding the problem.
The board regrets the impact that this has had on those of our constituents who have been affected. This was not our intention, and we want to make it right. We would gladly pass a resolution to alter the application of Measure U to low value parcels if we were empowered to do so. We have been strongly advised that only the voters have this power.
The district board agrees with and supports Ms. McDonnel’s and others’ position that low-value parcels should be exempted from the tax, and we are moving forward as quickly as possible with a process that we know to be legal, correct and decisive, and to place the question on a single issue mail-in ballot that will not be burdened with the emotions of a national election.
We hope the voters in the district will approve the amendment on the upcoming ballot measure. Passage will not increase taxes for anyone and will remove the unfair burden on those who have been affected.
Speaking as an individual director, I believe that efforts by those who would benefit from the exemption to oppose the board’s efforts to rectify the issue and questioning the validity of the process are ill-advised and could backfire, resulting in continued taxation of these parcels indefinitely. I suggest that time and effort would be better directed toward achieving passage of the ballot measure so that won’t happen.
Email Dan Fein at dan.fein @monteriofire.org.