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De-assessing the situation 

Proposition 218 an eight-year-old state initiative designed to give property owners a right to vote on assessments for public works projects remains of critical importance in Los Osos.

A successful 218 vote in 2001 funded the later-halted downtown sewer project, which ran the wastewater controversy before virtually every public body in the land. The threat of a failed 218 vote in the near future could kill Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee's bridge-building bill the one giving project control to the county and put the town back at "GO" without collecting $200.

Late the week of Nov. 20, a regiment of ticked Los Osos landowners filed claims in bankruptcy court, asserting that the money they approved in 2001 for a sewer project was effectively squandered by feuding editions of the local community services district board. Advocacy group Taxpayer Watch led the effort. For the beleaguered current board already mired in tens of millions of dollars of liability the news of further financial saddle-bagging triggered headaches.

"It's more flak, and I don't see any end in sight," recently reelected board member Steve Senet said. "The district is fragile right now."

Senet and two other board members considered the legal effort to be another front of the organization's dissolution campaign against the embattled CSD.

"[The claims] are more in response to the district's insistence that the project is defunct," Taxpayer Watch's Gordon Hensley responded.

Some single-family homeowners in Los Osos paid their $3,300 assessments up front rather than accrue 30 years' worth of interest in an installment plan. They constitute the bulk of the claims. As of Nov. 29, no exact figure yet existed on the litigatory total.

Taxpayer Watch said it issued informal refund requests to the CSD not long after the state loans defaulted last winter.

The judicial movement called into question the very nature of Proposition 218. The applicants believe that, since the assessment never achieved its stated destination of a functional wastewater system, the agency violated an incentive agreement made by a former CSD to push the vote forward.

New Times phoned bankruptcy specialists and legislative analysts to determine the plausibility of a massive court award. Lawyers said the case was "unlikely to appear before the court," but cited a lack of precedent. Inquiries in the legislative arena yielded more questions than answers.

"The word 'refund' doesn't exist in Prop 218," concluded researcher Marianne O'Malley of the Legislative Analysts Office in Sacramento. "There's no provision for what happens when an agency completely fails at product delivery."

Recalled CSD directors and other annoyed community members formed Taxpayer Watch following the 2005 special election. Since then, the organization has rallied to break up the CSD and recently lost a bid before the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) to disassemble the agency on claims of managerial incompetence.

Julie Tacker, one of the more outspoken members of the sitting board, responded to the Taxpayer Watch move by challenging the group to pony up on its $27,747 LAFCO tab.

"If you could get 100 Taxpayer Watchers to cough up $270, they could pay their bill," she said.

Legal code requires that any body requesting dissolution reimburse the public for lawyers and staff employed in reviewing the matter if the request is denied. Taxpayer Watch pulled lint out of its pockets, but the LAFCO board unanimously struck down a request to waive the fees.

LAFCO executive officer Paul Hood confirmed the delinquent status and said the commission is contemplating a lawsuit.

"The LAFCO bill is a contractual disagreement," Taxpayer Watch's Hensley said. "With or without Blakeslee's bill, they said they would have recommended against dissolution.

"Why should we pay for something that could have been decided on day one?"


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