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Proposition 13 stirs comments across broad range.

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Wednesday, August 17th, 2005 — Earlier this summer, I wrote that Proposition 13 creates an arbitrary disparity between taxpayers, and therefore taxes was not healthy for our community. In that column (Weekly, July 20), I argued that the disparity hit young families more than any other segment of the population.

Since then, I have received numerous e-mail responses, and have had even more conversations on this topic. Many responses came from retired seniors or Baby Boomers who are enjoying the benefits of Proposition 13. Some were from newer homeowners; others from folks who wished they were.

Considering all that I have heard and read, I am beginning to feel a bit foolish. But not entirely.

Believe it or not, the majority of people I heard from agreed that the present system is inequitable. However, they disagreed that the law needs amending because of its adverse effects on young people.

Readers wrote: "Young people? Look around. There are lots of young families in Palo Alto."

They're right. We have not closed a school in Palo Alto since the 1980s, and we have added portable classrooms on some campuses. Nursery school rosters are full. Proposition 13 has not closed Palo Alto's doors to the next generation. Neither has the steep cost of buying a home.

As far as I can tell, this is the crux of matter for many seniors went like this: If people can afford the high prices let them pay the high taxes.

Without a doubt, retired seniors are edgy. Not only are some afraid that a change in the system could force them out of their homes, but many were adamant: "We paid our dues! Let the young people pay theirs." This is not hard to understand from seniors who inherited the inflation of the Silicon Valley boom years but whose careers and retirement packages peaked in a very different economy.

The disparity we are living with is much deeper than Proposition 13. If we divide homeowners (and those who would like to own homes) into three groups: (1) those whose earning years precede the dot.com boom; (2) those who rode on the crest of the wave; and (3) those who came after the crash, we get a glimpse of three very different attitudes toward Proposition 13.

There are many exceptions, but in genera, seniors need Proposition 13's protection against inflation in order to help preserve the standard of living for which they worked years ago. Conversely, young people generally (with exceptions) could use relief from the extraordinary cost of home ownership in an economy that escalated before they arrived.

That leaves those of us in the middle who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We bought our homes on the Peninsula when mortgage payments resembled today's grocery bills. We continued to earn a living in the boom environment, and, God willing, we will live here for many more years without financial strain.

So the three different economic realities result in three different vantage points on taxes and government services.

This brings us back to readers' comments on my Proposition 13 column.

Most observations were largely predictable. Seniors cite government waste as a reason to keep taxes low. "Give more money, they will keep spending it." Younger taxpayers bemoan the decline in services, and claim that Proposition 13 "has created a generation that believes it is entitled to low taxes because there is always significant waste in government."

Readers I heard from were unanimously concerned over the drop-off in the performance of California schools since the passage of Proposition 13, especially in basic-aid districts such as Palo Alto's. As with other public services, some disagree that more money is the solution.

Over and over, readers expressed discomfort over enjoying a privilege that wasn't available to everyone. That's not to say this concern was unanimous. A couple of crotchety old guys let me know I was completely off of my rocker. For them, Proposition 13 is no less than a hard-earned and hard-won, never-to-be-questioned right -- for some.

Yet despite certain justified fears and competing interests, I found that most people had a genuine desire to do the right thing.

My friend Emil, who will be 90 years old in October, is a perfect example. This world needs more people like Emil and his wife, Elsie. They are happy living in the home they bought in 1959. They live simply. A few days ago, Emil handed me an envelope. He had typed up his rebuttal to my points, along with a statement on the unfairness of the present property tax system and his proposal for amending Proposition 13.

That kind of spirit is the glue of a community. Emil is not alone.

Many readers want what would "be good for the community as a whole in the long run." One woman wrote: "I don't want to pay more taxes, but I really think it could be equalized." She speaks for many of us.

Maybe readers' thoughtful suggestions are a good place to focus the energy around this issue. Here is a brief summary of what readers wrote:

1) Maintain property taxes, but defer collecting taxes from fixed-income seniors until the property is transferred. Treat real estate taxes like gift and capital gains taxes.

2) Eliminate property taxes. Property values are no longer a relevant measure of wealth or of one's ability to pay for services. The concept has outlived its useful life.

3) Move to a parcel tax system. Divide the approved annual budget among tax-paying properties. Commercial property owners would pay at a higher rate.

4) Vote "No." on all assessments that would not have been proposed if Proposition 13 were amended in order to force a structural change in the law. (Is this "tough love" or abdicating responsibility?)

5) Build in needed protections for certain homeowners, especially the elderly.

6) Implement changes gradually.

"Proposition 13 anxiety" cuts across all ages and economic circumstances. To young homeowners, this law has turned Palo Alto into a retirement community, while seniors think the town gives budget priority to the young.

Nobody is talking about undoing Proposition 13. No one wants to force people like Emil and Elsie out of their homes, or overburden young families. We're all in this together. That should not stop us from trying to find a more equitable way to fund public services adequately .

Some readers warn: Now is the time to do something. Eventually, the tide will turn, and tax-protected properties will be in the minority. Why wait to address the disparity of the current system and its economic fallout until the next Howard Jarvis comes along and takes it out of our hands? Instead of sit-ups, we could be jumping through hoops created by our shortsightedness.