LOS ANGELES The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association will file suit against Los Angeles County today, alleging that a recently approved fee to fund public libraries under California's Mello-Roos law is illegal, Jarvis president Joel Fox said yesterday.
The suit, scheduled to be filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court. marks the latest development in an ongoing debate over how to resolve a county library funding crisis.
Ten county libraries have shut their doors in the last two years. and more than half of the remaining 87 branches are open only two to three days a week. County officials have blamed library system cutbacks on a state-mandated permanent property tax shift from the county to schools that began in fiscal 1992.
On a 3-to-2 vote, supervisors on Aug. 30 approved a special charge under the Mello-Roos Community Facilities District Act of 1992. The special charge is intended to raise about $16 million a year for library opera: lions. The charge will range from roughly $28.50 a year per single-family dwellings to several hundred dollars for commercial properties.
Fox of the Jarvis organization said that the Mello-Roos service charge is illegal "without a vote of the people."
"The county claims the Mello-Roos act provides the legal authority to impose charges for library services on a per-parcel basis --but it does not," Fox said.
Fox said three California cities recently received two-thirds voter approval for special taxes to support their libraries, and he believes that Los Angeles County voters would approve such a measure if given an opportunity.
The Mello-Roos act has been used most commonly to finance infrastructure improvements such as streets and sewers. It allows districts to issue bonds to pay for facilities or services after approval by a two-thirds vote of residents or landowners. The bonds are secured by the levy of special taxes.
But Los Angeles County used a section of the Mello-Roos act that allows a district to collect special charges, which are not taxes, said John Edmisten, senior finance analyst for the county's chief administrative office.
Edmisten said the Mello-Roos special charge is similar to a charge the county is permitted to levy -- without voter approval -- on behalf of socalled county service areas. These areas are typically out-of-the-way locations that larger county infrastructure such as sewer lines cannot reach.
The supervisors' resolution authorizing the library Mello-Roos district indicates "the district is not going to be an issuer of bonds," Edmisten said. By contrast, the county's six other Mello-Roos districts are "developer-driven," he said.
The library district "is a different animal," Edmisten said. "It is contemplated to be used to only yield a service charge for operations."
Los Angeles County supervisor Gloria Molina, who grudgingly voted to approve the library Mello-Roos district, is hoping to shelve the special charge this fiscal year if surplus county funds can be found as an alternative to fund the library system.
"We are still working on the numbers" to determine whether there are surplus funds available, county spokeswoman Judy Hammond said yesterday. County staff is likely to have a response to Molina's request at the Oct. 4 supervisors meeting, she said.
In a related development, a bill that would authorize California local governments to establish assessment districts for library services -- and issue limited obligation bonds for library facilities secured by the assessment -- is on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk.
The bill is sponsored by state Sen. David Roberti, D-Los Angeles. Yesterday, Roberti's press deputy, Ann Blattner, said his office has not been told when Wilson would take action on the legislation. Wilson has until Sept. 30 to sign, veto, or let the legislation become law without his signature.