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February 08, 2006

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Publication Date: Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Editorial: Can we all please just get along? Editorial: Can we all please just get along? (February 08, 2006)

A modern-day equivalent of "The Millionaire" -- a fictional philanthropist who handed out seven-figure checks to surprised citizens in a 1950s-era TV drama -- came calling in Portola Valley late last November with a surprise check for $915,000 from the county. But the new money isn't calming any waters roiled in fights over renewing the utility users tax in last November's election and the building and financing of the Town Center complex.

Two weeks ago, the Town Council decided to salt away the windfall into an unrestricted reserve. The windfall of property tax revenues and its apparent promise of $400,000-plus annual payments seem to go some distance in correcting a chronic property tax-revenue shortfall in Portola Valley.

In responding to the windfall, the council is waiting until April to decide whether and how much to reduce a 7.5 percent utility users tax, first passed in the 1980s.

That delay infuriated the leaders of an anti-tax group that sought to defeat the renewal of the utility tax in the November election (mainly as a way to protest the council's plans to build a new $20 million Town Center). The windfall belongs to the taxpayers, they say.

The Town Center is a sore point. The need to rebuild is well founded and was openly debated in many public forums, but opponents say the council wrongly used operating funds, including some utility tax revenues, to create a $3 million reserve for the project. They also want the council to give voters a say on the project by proposing to finance it through a general obligation bond, which would require a two-thirds voter approval. A private fundraising campaign, supported by the council, is under way.

The opponents' campaign against the utility tax renewal fell short last fall, but the 4 percentage point margin of victory was far below the 47 percentage point margin in 2001 and the even larger margins of previous elections.

That narrow margin was a shot across the council's bow on its handling of the Town Center project, and since the windfall, the anti-tax speakers at meetings have continued their assault. At a January 25 community meeting, Mayor Steve Toben set the agenda to focus on disposing of the windfall, but some tax opponents defied the agenda and called for immediately suspending the utility tax.

The choice to put off a decision on a lower tax rate until April was a good one, and we fully support it. There are some big questions still to be answered, including:

** Does the town have a legal claim to 15 years of back payments of property tax revenues dating from 1988? A county spokesman said no, but a court case is being considered.

** Will the county continue to add some $400,000 annually in property tax revenues for the town in future years?

So far, council members have been technically correct in the steps they've taken. For example, it's illegal for a town to rebate property tax revenues directly to taxpayers. And an agenda does govern what can and cannot be discussed at a council meeting.

As the council moves toward a decision on the utility tax rate questions, members should continue to reach out to all the public by fully and frequently explaining their important decisions and listening attentively to the complaints.

At times, it appears that council members do not recall that the close November vote on the utility tax was seen by many as a referendum on their own performance in planning the new Town Center.

For their part, the tax opponents could benefit by some examination of their tactics. Council members have to deliberate in public and do not have the luxury of simplifying complexities to suit a point of view. During the November election, the tax opponents offered no candidates and their allegations of ulterior motives on the council's part verged on the scurrilous. And the vocal opponents could use a few lessons in Roberts Rules of Order.

Portola Valley has had a reputation for inclusive decision-making. It will take some doing on the part of the council, tax opponents and residents as a whole to revive that era of good feelings after what often has been a spiteful and nasty dispute.

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