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July 08, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 08, 2005

Seniors opt out of increased parcel tax Seniors opt out of increased parcel tax (July 08, 2005)

Six-year tax too steep for those on fixed incomes

by Alexandria Rocha

Hundreds of seniors have opted out of the Palo Alto school district's increased parcel tax this year, with many saying the new amount -- which is $200 more than last year -- digs too deep into their pockets.

"I adore children and I voted for everything, including the big bond, but I just can't afford to keep giving out money," said Sylvia Smitham, 70, on a break Wednesday from volunteering at the Avenidas senior center.

Last month, voters approved Measure A, an annual $493 parcel tax with a term of six years, to help the district retain its teachers and small-class size reduction program. The new measure increases the $293 per year tax that voters passed in 2001.

The district offers homeowners 65 and older an exemption from the tax each year. It has been a source of contention between the district and its critics, who say it's an easy way to attract elderly voters.

Regardless, the exemption has been popular with hundreds of seniors, many who are on a fixed income and relying on Social Security. As of this week, nearly 2,700 seniors have opted out. Last year, about 2,165 excluded themselves from the $293 tax. In 2003, about 2,290 did, and in 2002, it was 2,210.

Tina Allen, secretary to the district's business manager, Gerry Matranga, is still counting applications for this year -- the first round for the higher tax.

"There are people out there who can pay the $293," Matranga said. "But $493 is a big jump."

Because the exemption has been controversial in recent months, many seniors are hesitant to talk openly about their personal situations.

"It costs me a lot of money because I own two houses," said one resident of Avenidas, a man who refused to give his name. "I still voted for it -- that tells you where my loyalty lies."

The man did say he planned to apply for an exemption.

Another senior homeowner, who also didn't want to give her name, said she has and will continue to opt out of the tax, but didn't say how she voted on the measure.

"We are seniors on a fixed income on Social Security. If we need a new water heater, if we need a new roof; we have to dip into our savings, which we have to set aside for long-term care," said the woman, 76.

"People say you've got all that money in your house. Well you can't eat it. It doesn't pay the bill at Safeway. People are going to have to say I can't pay this parcel tax," she added.

Some seniors who have opted out, including Smitham, have decided to make a smaller donation to the school district in place of the parcel tax. Allen said most of these gifts have been between $100 and $200.

"I promised myself that if I took the exemption, I would give a donation," said Smitham, who is from England but has lived in Palo Alto for 41 years. "I know I get it off my taxes, but that's not what I do it for."

In December, after the district's first attempt to increase the current tax to $521 per year failed, anti-tax resident Wayne Martin formally requested the names, addresses and phone numbers of seniors who had applied for an exemption in 2004 from the district.

School officials quickly sent a letter to the more than 2,100 seniors telling them Martin had requested their names and under the Public Information Act was required to release them.

"If you have questions of Mr. Martin regarding his request you would need to contact him directly," concluded the letter, written by a district official.

Martin stood behind his request, but it fired up seniors all over Palo Alto. Many said they felt their privacy had been invaded and didn't want to discuss the matter at all.

"They can essentially bribe potential voters by saying (the tax) isn't going to cost them anything," said Martin, who led campaigns against both of the district's proposals, earlier this year.

It's an accusation, however, that has been refuted by supporters.

"We did not say vote 'yes' because you don't have to pay for this," said Jon Foster, a co-chair on the citizens' campaign for the $493 tax.

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