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MUSD must pay taxes or improve Union Ranch site

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POSTED February 13, 2013 1:31 a.m.

Manteca Unified School District has a $345,000 dilemma - or at the least, perhaps just a $15,000 dilemma or just about any amount in between. But as of Tuesday night, the Board of Trustees settled on $45,000 for now.

The dilemma-driven issue is the district’s nine-acre property in the Union Ranch East subdivision east of Del Webb on North Union Road that has been earmarked for a future school. At the heart of the number-crunching is the district’s desire to maintain the land’s tax-exempt status. As Superintendent Jason Messer candidly admitted during the discussion, “We’re trying to get around the law.”

What the law states is that if improvements to the property are not put in place, the district will have to pay taxes. Exactly how much are those taxes was information that was not available during the discussion; hence, the board’s decision to throw in the $45,000 for the landscaping plans with the proviso that this discussion item be returned to the table with more information and options.

The $345,000 landscaping cost would come from the voter-approved Measure M, which currently has just $1 million in the bank. As presented by the school district staff, the money would serve as a long-term-investment since it would be used to survey and grade the site and dig a well to provide irrigation to the proposed landscaping. Staff indicated that the intent of all the proposed site improvements is to get rid of a visual nuisance in the neighborhood, which is a concern of the residents in this area, as well as to put in place infrastructure – that is, irrigation, trees, and hydroseeding – that will be already well developed once the school is built.

Citizen Karen Pearsall urged that “any improvements should make sense and be very meaningful” because if they don’t, then what the district is trying to do would appear as “just a tax dodge.” And that would be simply complying with the law, “but not with the spirit of the law,” she said.

She added that the nine acres was purchased with Measure M money shortly after it was passed by the voters because “it was thought to be in the best interest of the district to buy the property.” But then the housing market fell through, home-building stopped, and that led to the quandary that the district finds itself in today – make improvements to the property or pay taxes.

Exactly when the school will be built was something Messer could not predict. Soon after the district purchased the nine acres, the housing boom went bust so the need to build a school became a moot point. Messer said he does not think a school will be built at that site in five years, maybe even longer than that. However, he pointed out that if the improvements are not put in place now, and the district gets to that point when it needs to do just that for the new school but there’s no more Measure M money left, “where are we going to get money then?”

Board Vice President Evelyn Moore said she liked the idea of having a well at the site and having trees planted “before we have the school.”

As to a suggestion made about turning the vacant land into a student farming project, Messer said, “We might hear some concerns if we farm this property.”

Trustee Manuel Medeiros asked if a land-swap is possible by talking with developers. Messer explained that in staff’s conversations with some developers, if the property is sold, the money would be going back to Measure M.

“A land swap wouldn’t be free,” he said.

Trustee Deborah Romero asked if Measure M funds could be used to pay the property taxes. Messer said any taxes would come from the district’s general fund.

Board President Don Scholl commented that harnessing the long-term benefit that would be in place if the property is improved while avoiding taxes at the same time “looks pretty simple, but it’s easier said than done.”

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