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By Renee Batti
Almanac News Editor
Jennifer Bestor didn't know what to expect last month when she mailed a rather whimsical letter to billionaire Warren Buffet about her research on how Proposition 13 has shifted the state's property tax burden away from commercial land owners. His subsequent response, though, has left the Menlo Park mother of a school-age son smiling -- and energized.
Ms. Bestor was featured in a March 17 Almanac article that detailed her research and her quest to raise public awareness of the "incredible windfall" Proposition 13 has provided to commercial property owners -- and the adverse consequences of that windfall to schools, towns and other public entities.
In her letter, Ms. Bestor urged Mr. Buffett to again take up an issue he had abruptly dropped in 2003, when he was serving as candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger's economic adviser during the gubernatorial race. At the time, Mr. Buffett opined that Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax measure considered to be the "third rail" in California politics, needed to be repealed or changed because of the economic damage it had caused the state.
Eager to squelch the public outcry over the statement, Mr. Schwarzenegger told his adviser never to mention Proposition 13 again or he would be forced to do 500 sit-ups.
Motivated by what she discovered after reviewing the tax collector rolls for Santa Cruz Avenue commercial properties in Menlo Park, Ms. Bestor wrote in her open letter to Mr. Buffett: "Please let me know how I can help you with the sit-ups. We desperately need some energy from that third rail."
In her mailbox recently, Ms. Bestor found a letter from Omaha, where Mr. Buffett lives. It reads:
"Dear Jennifer: I'm going to be 80 in August. 500 sit-ups are out of the question. If you get me in trouble promise me that you will do at least half of them. Sincerely, Warren E. Buffett."
Although she claims she's "not an activist, in any sense of the word" -- including on an exercise mat -- Ms. Bestor wasn't about to pass up an opportunity. If Mr. Buffett proves willing to be a liaison to the governor's office, and if sit-ups are the required admission, she's going to be prepared. She's been working on her crunches with determination, she says.
Much of Ms. Bestor's motivation springs from her involvement as a parent volunteer in the Menlo Park City School District, where her son goes to school. School districts in the state are reeling from the effects of the economic meltdown, and the Menlo Park district also suffered a multi-million-dollar loss from the Lehman Brothers collapse.
Sitting up for the schools
Meanwhile, when Ms. Bestor wrote to "The Oracle of Omaha" to ask if The Almanac could reprint his letter, he wrote back:
"If you publicize my first letter, maybe we'll even get 498 volunteers who will each contribute one sit-up and thereby bring our requirement to a manageable level. Best wishes. Warren."
She wasn't going to wait for the letter to be published. By last week, Ms. Bestor had tapped into her network of friends and acquaintances in the school community to find a committed group of about 20 who eagerly agreed to perform sit-ups for the cause.
Ever the numbers cruncher, Ms. Bestor came up with a formula that, given the ages of the volunteers, would produce a total of 500 sit-ups. In an e-mail, she explains: "The subscription formula is 80 (sit-ups) minus one's age. Thus, Warren will have to do one ... and the rest of us somewhat more.
"I've resisted anyone under 18 for fear of the child labor laws, though my son informs me that it's harder to watch me do 30 than to do 70 himself. I am not amused."
She's not sure what will happen next, but she hopes that the ball she's dropped in Mr. Buffett's court will be used to gain the attention of the governor and Sacramento lawmakers. She and her firm-bellied troops are ready and willing, she says.
Ms. Bestor has also met with assessors in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, and a San Francisco assessor who contacted her after reading The Almanac's article, to talk about ideas to change the commercial property provisions of Proposition 13, which are the same as homeowner provisions. Since the proposition was passed in 1978, the tax rate on all property has been capped at 1 percent of assessed value, and that value can be increased by no more than 2 percent annually. The property's value is kept in place under that formula until the property is sold, and over the years, the tax burden has become significantly greater on homeowners.
Education foundation effort
Ms. Bestor also turned her energy toward the Menlo Park Atherton Education Foundation, a nonprofit group of volunteers that raises money for programs in the Menlo Park City School District.
Last month she met with foundation co-president Scott Lohmann to discuss her unusual fundraising idea: a campaign to solicit donations for the schools from commercial property owners in the district who benefit from lower tax levels, thanks to Proposition 13.
The idea was floated among the foundation's leadership, and this week, a letter seeking donations is scheduled to go out to about 50 commercial property owners with low tax rates, Ms. Bestor says.
Go to Letter to Warren Buffett for Ms. Bestor's original letter.
Go to Who is prospering from Prop 13? to read the March 17 story on Ms. Bestor and her research.