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The Santa Ana City Council Monday night tabled deliberations over the controversial special property tax district that funds Downtown Inc., saying the issue will be taken up again in the spring.
Councilman Sal Tinajero said dismantling the district now would leave the city on the hook for up to $1.1 million in payments to Downtown Inc. for its many downtown promotional and cleaning services. He also said he feared a lawsuit from the organization.
Frustrated property owners — some of whom have pleaded to dismantle the tax at nearly every council meeting since December — denounced the council’s inaction as tantamount to theft.
“You’re stealing our money!” shouted one property owner during the meeting.
Such shouts at council meetings have become common in the bitter dispute. Some property owners say the formation of the tax district was imposed on them unjustly, while other property owners and merchants say that Downtown Inc. is key to revitalizing the downtown.
The tax was passed in 2008 on a vote of downtown property owners. The measure, however, was structured to favor the large landowners. The result was the doubling and even tripling of some property tax bills.
The city modeled its version of the tax district after state law but omitted a clause allowing property owners to petition the City Council to disestablish the district.
Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez, who has been championing the anti-tax side, offered three ideas Monday for settling the controversy: setting a public hearing to dismantle the tax district; holding a property owners advisory election; and allowing property owners the right to petition for disestablishment.
Alvarez received almost no support for her ideas from other members of council. The only exception was Councilwoman Michele Martinez, who said she would support the advisory election option.
Alvarez scoffed at suggestions that Downtown Inc. could sue the city. “We could get sued one way or the other. Either way we might have to pay, but why not pay for doing the right thing?” Alvarez said, referring to legal threats from both sides.
Tinajero said during an interview that he felt Alvarez was pandering to her base of supporters and not thinking of the best interests of the wider community in her battle against the tax district. He singled out a comment she made at the meeting implying that Councilman Vincent Sarmiento was pandering when he received applause for making an impassioned speech in support of affordable housing.
“I thought that was kind of interesting that she used that word, because I thought she was pandering to the folks who were supporting her,” Tinajero said.
Tinajero also criticized Alvarez’s political style as ineffective, saying that she approached no council member for support throughout the many meetings in which she has attempted to have the tax district squashed.
“The thing that frustrates me is Claudia brought it back even though she knew there wasn’t support,” he said.
The issue will be taken up again in May, Tinajero said, because the city should be allowed to consider dismantling the district without threat of litigation at that time. The law governing the district requires council members vote annually on whether to continue the district.
Alvarez couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.