CITYWIDE — Anybody who owns or rents property in Santa Monica knows that the city by the sea is not a cheap place to live.
Santa Monicans pay for the luxury of living in an iconic beach town, bounded by the sparkling Pacific Ocean on one side, and the bustling metropolis of Los Angeles on the other.
What people may forget, at least until property-tax time, is that residents are also paying a premium to preserve a number of programs and initiatives that enhance other aspects of life in the 8.3-square-mile city.
That extra money, in the forms of bonds and parcel taxes, goes to support schools, build facilities, help the environment and, if you’re a business owner, pay for the tourist-friendly Ambassador program and parking in Downtown.
It also elevates the property tax burden from the base 1 percent charge that’s levied county-wide to 1.141454. If that doesn’t seem like much, consider that extra .14 percent is levied on all 23,000 parcels in Santa Monica that have a net value of $23.8 billion.
It leaves Santa Monica the 32nd highest property tax area in Los Angeles County out of 88 municipalities, with City of Industry at the highest with 1.94 percent, and Bellflower the lowest with 1.03 percent.
Self-imposed taxes approved at the ballot box in Santa Monica accounted for $50,428,450.99 in assessments in the 2011 fiscal year alone.
Not an insignificant sum of money, and each organization that gets support from the extra taxes will tell you that it’s all critical to making Santa Monica the kind of place that residents have come to expect.
Far and away, the majority of the homeowner-paid additional taxes come back to the community’s support of education, both for facilities and the programs that take place in them.
Santa Monica College, for example, passed three bond measures in rapid succession between 2002 and 2008 — Measure U ($160 million), Measure S ($135 million) and Measure AA ($295 million).
Bonds have a very specific purpose. They only need a 55 percent majority to pass, but the money can only be used on buildings and infrastructure projects.
That 55 percent threshold supplanted the more onerous 66 percent super-majority in 2001 with the passage of Prop 39, a voter measure passed specifically to make it easier for localities to overcome a dysfunctional state system of education funding and make sure schools had the support they needed to replace aging and outdated buildings and technology.
That lowered bar opened the door to SMC to pass its three bonds, said Donald Girard, the senior director of government affairs and institutional communications, and the school has used that money not only to improve learning for its students, but also to integrate fully into the Santa Monica and Malibu communities.
SMC used some of its bond money in partnerships with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District on field improvements at John Adams Middle School, and with City Hall to create a child care facility at the Civic Center.
More bond money will be used to shore up stormwater drainage issues at a site in Malibu, and to support a growing net of small satellite campuses spread through the community to minimize the impact of a college population on a small area.
“The work has been vision-driven,” Girard said. “It’s come out of an understanding in the gaps that exist, and it’s been an evolution.”
With the amount of money Santa Monica residents put into SMC, one might expect that a significant percentage of the SMC population hailed from the town itself.
“It’s pretty small,” said Bruce Smith, spokesperson for SMC. “Approximately, of our overall enrollment, 15 percent live in our district in Santa Monica and Malibu.”
It’s those extra linkages, the relationships with the primary and secondary schools and the benefits to both cities, that appeal to voters, Girard said.
“This is a community that wants services, and shows a willingness to pay for them,” he said simply.
SMMUSD has also been the recipient of a great deal of community support, ranging from the $268 million bond, Measure BB, to Measure R, a parcel tax that combined two previous parcel taxes and has no sunset.
Measure BB money is getting stretched to its highest potential. That $268 million will rebuild Edison Language Academy, do critical structural enhancements to other schools and begin to pay for a series of improvements at Santa Monica High School.
It’s unclear how much longer the education community can float up bonds and parcel taxes and expect them to pass, however.
Measure A, a $198 per parcel tax, failed at the ballot box with a 62 percent majority, but not enough to squeak over the 66 percent finish line.
Schools did manage to get some extra funding through Measures Y and YY, which implemented a half-cent sales tax and promised half the proceeds to the schools, but the school board reconvened a citizen committee to look at the possibility of another parcel tax and bond measure on Thursday.
City Councilwoman Gleam Davis, who assisted on several school bond and parcel tax efforts, acknowledged that voters might wince at the thought of another tax, but that in the absence of state-funding, Santa Monicans seem ready and willing to support quality education.
“I realize there could be fear of community fatigue, that, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s the schools again.’ Unfortunately, until legislators can get the state’s house in order, the burden of doing so is going to fall to localities,” Davis said. “It’s too bad, because not every community has as enlightened residents as Santa Monica. We’re very lucky here in Santa Monica to have great schools, and have residents that support those schools whether or not they have students in the district.”
If there’s one thing that Santa Monicans rally around as much as the school district, it’s the environment.
Perhaps that’s why residents came out with a super-majority to fund Measure V, also known as the Clean Beaches and Oceans Parcel Tax, a $2.3 million pot of money that protects one of Santa Monica’s most vital assets — the ocean.
Mark Gold, executive director of the environmental non-profit Heal the Bay, has helped direct Measure V projects since the tax passed in 2006.
It’s been instrumental in upgrading aging storm drains and putting in place storm water runoff measures that keep the water quality at the beaches healthy enough for swimmers, Gold said.
“[Without it], the beach at the Santa Monica Pier would get an F,” Gold said. “The beach is visited by more than 3 million people a year. To think you have this incredible tourist attraction and community treasure and the water is so polluted that you can’t swim there safely, was a major black eye for the city.”
To protect the health of the oceans, Measure V funds helped implement an urban stormwater runoff master plan in the city, which has led to pilot projects like the Bicknell “green street” project, which used landscaping and special filters to guide stormwater away from the oceans.
“The big thing we’re worried about with runoff, is that as it goes through the street, it picks up animal waste, pet waste and fecal bacteria pathogens that cause us to get sick,” Gold said.
If Santa Monica residents have hit the saturation point with special assessments, the potential proposal for a parcel tax and bond from SMMUSD might be the test case.
Until then, the level of taxation doesn’t seem to deter those who already plan to move to Santa Monica from putting down roots here.
Simon Salloom, a real estate agent that sells in Santa Monica and Brentwood, doesn’t find that potential buyers get scared off by the thought of a high tax bill.
Where Santa Monica has difficulty, Salloom said, is in its sales taxes and the amount of red tape standing in the way of even small scale development, like property owners that want to knock down a house and build a new one from scratch.
“Property taxes have no impact on buying or selling here,” he said. “It’s just slightly higher than other places.”
Some things are just worth paying for.