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Battling deficit by playing baseball

Manteca Unified forced to spend money to avoid $279K in annual state fees

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POSTED June 7, 2009 1:57 a.m.
Manteca Unified is in the middle of a budget crisis of what could be described as biblical proportions yet the folks at 2271 West Louise Avenue are crafting plans to spend money to put in a baseball field.

Have they gone mad?

Actually, they’re crazy like a fox.

It is what you have to be when the state is getting ready to charge Manteca Unified School District up to $279,141 a year for land that is sitting vacant. It is part of a state law that penalizes schools for not building schools on land they purchase within a specific time frame.

“It’s crazy,” Manteca Unified School District Jason Messer said.

The district last week issued final lay-off notices to 209 teachers as it grapples with a $32.7 million deficit.

State law imposes penalties that must be paid annually that are based on the size of the vacant school site parcel if some type of development hasn’t taken place.

There are five school sites the district has purchased that haven’t been utilized yet. Most were purchased with Measure M bond money designed to generate funds needed for the school district to secure state school construction money to marry with Mello-Roos taxes and school growth fees assessed on housing to build new campuses.

Two of those five sites – Rustic School and Ethel Allen School – will start racking up annual penalties in 2010 during the next school year as the district is faced with a deficit.
So instead of sending the state $77,548 a year, the district researched to see if there was anything they could do and the answer was to put in some type of community recreation use.

“We are looking at putting a baseball field on the Ethel Allen site and a bench at Rustic School along with a sign saying that it is a roadside rest stop,” Messer said.

He isn’t kidding.

Both actions would meet the state definition of development and save the district $77,548 annually.

Messer noted Ethel Allen would need a baseball field sooner or later anyway and that it is near people who would use it. If the district can find money to put in grass they will do it but it would have to come out of a non-general fund account so as not to add to the deficit.

It could however, simply end up being a backstop with a field dragged bare of weeds.

Rustic School is out in the country with no homes near it. So Messer’s staff determined a bench with a roadside rest stop sign would suffice.

The district had originally projected it would start construction on the fourth Manteca area high school campus by 2012. That is now extremely unlikely. Once 2013 rolls around, the district will have to start paying $155,000 a year in fees to the state for the Tinnin Road site.

“We looked at leasing it out to farmers but were told they couldn’t make money on it due to property taxes that they’d have to pay if they grew crops,” Messer said. “That is why farmers have their land in the Williamson Act.”

Agricultural land in the Williamson Act has substantially lower assessments. It takes 10 years to cancel Williamson Act contracts.

The district does have a school farm on part of the property but that doesn’t suffice.

The other two school sites facing penalties is one in Union Ranch East - $23,750 a year – and the Woodward Annex in Tesoro at $26,893 a year. Both face such annual penalty charges starting in 2013.

The fee is designed to backfill property taxes from land that is acquired by schools but is kept vacant and not developed after a certain point.

The only other way to avoid the annual assessments is to sell the land. That, however, would end up costing the district significantly more in the long run as they still have to buy land to build the schools eventually.
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