A Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury Report released May 22 stated that the Palo Alto Unified School District is among 22 school districts that have been asked to improve their parcel tax application and renewal procedures.
A parcel tax, according to the district's website, is a type of property tax on plots of land for different types of property that go towards creating programs for "science, engineering, math, reading, writing, arts, and music." Parcel tax exemptions are available for community members over 65 years old or disabled residents.
The report highlights several recommendations for Palo Alto Unified to make its parcel tax exemption application process more streamlined. These include providing information for those without internet; reviewing and revising as necessary all forms required to apply for or renew parcel tax exemptions; and developing an online process to renew or apply.
Additionally, the report recommends that all districts agree on a standard deadline for parcel tax exemptions (current parcel tax deadlines range from May 31 to June 30) and standardize the process for informing taxpayers about the exemptions.
According to the report, Palo Alto Unified has a $773 parcel tax for 22,286 parcels; the potential total revenue is $17,227,078. The number of senior exemptions in 2016 totaled 2,906, the third highest senior exemption rate in Santa Clara County, with the total value of exemptions being $2,246,338.
The grand jury found a "great deal of variability in terms of ease of finding information and how one applies," according to Marie Young, who served on the jury.
They filed the report after an investigation into a complaint by a senior homeowner "that his elementary school district requires residents to apply for parcel tax exemptions in person ... By contrast, his high school district made it easy to learn about parcel tax exemptions and to apply by mail." According to Young, the grand jury decided to investigate because "we could help a lot of people by publishing a report on (these exemptions)."
While most of the recommendations are district-specific, such as the recommendation to 13 school districts to have a link about applying for a parcel tax exemption on the homepage of their websites, several are standardized for the 22, such as the recommendation that the governing boards of districts should "agree on a standard date when applications" are due. Young said that the grand jury hopes for standardized dates in order to simplify the process for non-unified districts and for those who move to a different jurisdiction.
Young said that the districts do not have to fulfill their recommendations.
"The districts and any jurisdiction that is subject to a recommendation is required to respond within a period of 90 days," she said. "But they don't have to do what we say."
Despite the optionality of the recommendations, Palo Alto Unified Chief Business Officer Cathy Mak said that the district has already made some changes after a phone interview with the grand jury.
"The changes include revising the application form, simplifying the renewal process and updating the information on the website," she wrote to the Weekly. "We are also looking into having a link to the parcel tax page from the home page of our website as well as an online process for submittal of exemption applications."
The current grand jury now will look at the responses that come in to the recommendations. They have the option to follow up on any report filed last year.
Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association President Mark Hinkle wrote in a statement to the Weekly that school districts, when attempting to gather support for a parcel tax, are proactive in advertising the fact that seniors are eligible for an exemption in order to persuade seniors, who head to the polls at higher percentages than the average voter, to check "yes" on the ballot for the tax.
"The SVTA would like to see school district(s) be just as pro-active with taxpayers, once a parcel tax has passed, to advertise the exemption to seniors and those on SSI (Supplemental Security Income)," he wrote. "We recommend each parcel be mailed a letter detailing the procedure to claim the exemption. We further recommend that each district advertise the exemption process, and have tax exemption forms available, on their district's web site."