Santa Ana’s Downtown Inc. Assessment Battle Heats Up

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011 | In a Metro PCS shop on Santa Ana’s Fourth Street, store owner Fernando Ceballos helms the front counter, smartly dressed in a company wind breaker.

Usually, Ceballos has little time for talk, he’s too busy making sure the store is running smoothly. But late last week, he took a short break to talk about Downtown Inc., the organization managing the downtown’s property improvement district.

Ceballos didn’t mince words. He said if he could, he would boycott the assessment district tax on his property — a tax that is the primary revenue source for Downtown Inc. But, Ceballos said, the tax is automatically tacked onto his mortgage.

“It’s wrong,” Ceballos said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Ceballos and other downtown property owners, who submitted a petition last month requesting that the assessment district be dismantled, are set to speak at Tuesday’s City Council meeting and plead for relief from the tax.

They argue that Downtown Inc.’s services benefit trendy restaurant-bars and other stores in an area of the downtown known as the Artists Village but do little for smaller property owners — especially those on the heavily Latino Fourth Street — who run modest mom-and-pop-style shops out of their buildings.

Coin laundry owner Nina Jun, who is the spokeswoman for the group, says she will show up to the council meeting armed with facts that, she says, show the council violated the law and even undermined the democratic process when it passed the tax.

For example, Jun said, the city put the tax to a ballot in the summer of 2008, but couldn’t get over the 50 percent vote threshold needed to assemble the district. So the city decided to change the threshold, which already favored larger property owners because of its one-dollar, one-vote tallying method, to 30 percent, Jun said.

“Where’s our right?” Jun said. “If you lower it, of course it’s easy to pass.”

Jun has refused to pay her property tax bill because the downtown assessment tax is tied to it. Jun said she tried to pay the portion of her bill she thought was just the property tax, but her check was returned. She says some others are boycotting the tax as well, but that it isn’t a coordinated effort.

“This is serious,” Jun said in explaining her decision to boycott her property tax bill. “We don’t want to make it easy.”

City officials have tried to compromise with the group of property tax owners — which, according to the Orange County Register, includes Mayor Miguel Pulido’s family-owned car care shop — but have come up against stiff resistance.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez, along with a city staffer, met with property owners last month and offered to form a task force that would evaluate adjustments in the assessment district like changing the district’s borders and unbinding the assessment tax from the property tax.

Tensions in the room ran high, and there were even reports of a near fistfight between a property owner who was for the assessment district and a property owner against it.

But the property owners against the tax didn’t budge on their position — they want the assessment district completely dismantled.

“I kept getting interrupted, kept getting blamed,” Martinez said about the meeting. “They [property owners] didn’t want to listen.”

Martinez said she was going to continue to work on putting together the task force and look at making some of the changes she talked about because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Other property and business owners, which include larger entities and Downtown Inc. board members like S&A Properties’ Irving Chase, who owns property on Fourth Street, showed up in force at the previous council meeting to show their support for Downtown Inc. and the assessment district.

In his written comments to the council, Irving chastised property owners who are against the tax, saying their reasons for being against the district include the fact that they can’t afford it, that some want downtown’s merchants to “cater to only poor Mexicans and not White People,” and that they blame the district for their own adjustment failures.

Irving called their reasoning “short sighted and narcissistic.”

He said: “None have any idea what economic devastation will befall Downtown Santa Ana should our current efforts to diversify the downtown fail.”

Most council members responded by lauding Downtown Inc. for its efforts and signaling that the resistance of some of the property owners wasn’t going to sway them.

“Tell this council what you want to do, and you’ll find this council will be very supportive,” said Mayor Miguel Pulido. “We’re your friends, your cheerleaders and your partners. Your success is our success.”

Martinez, however, took a more neutral stance on the dispute.

“Both sides have asked me — what side I am on?” Martinez said. “I’m on the people’s side.”

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