STOCKTON — Homeowners in Weston Ranch are “cautiously optimistic” after the Manteca Unified Board of Education voted on Tuesday to pay the upcoming debt service on the Mello-Roos bonds issued to build schools in the South Stockton neighborhood out of reserves before they assess homeowners.
The move will save every homeowner in Weston Ranch roughly $180 over the course of the next year – something that organizer Amanda Aanerud said that the residents were grateful for.
But they aren’t cashing in their chips on the pursuit of eliminating what they see as an unjust tax just yet.
So far, residents have collected more than 400 approved signatures on a grassroots petition that if approved by voters will severely limit the flexibility that Manteca Unified has when using the money generated by the Weston Ranch Mello-Roos tax, and expect that within the next week they will exceed 500 which will give them the choice of whether they want to pursue a special election or place the item on the ballot in November.
While the ballot initiative, which was written up by former Weston Ranch School Board Trustee Dale Fritchen, won’t end the Mello-Roos tax immediately, as drawn up it will set a sunset clause that currently isn’t in place and restrict where the money that is generated can be spent. It’ll also prevent the district from taking out any more bonds or certificates of participation – a secondary funding mechanism that many in Weston Ranch believe turned the Community Facilities District that governed the area into a “slush fund” for the district.
“We’re cautiously optimistic about what they did with cutting the amount of money we have to pay next year, but at the same time the big sentiment is that we want this to be over with,” Aanerud said. “We’re tired of being the slush fund for the district and we’ve been overcharged for too long now. There isn’t supposed to be a surplus of Mello-Roos money and they’ve been operating like that for years.
“We want to vote for it and end it as soon as possible, and that’s what we’re pushing for right now.”
The discovery that Weston Ranch residents have paid more than their fair share special taxes was discovered almost by surprise. It wasn’t until the board considered using the Mello-Roos money to overhaul the Weston Ranch High School football stadium surface and the track that Fritchen – who also served on the Stockton City Council for a term – started looking into exactly how much money has been paid since the district was implemented in 1991 and where all of that money has gone.
And he found something that passed by him, even when he was on the board – that Weston Ranch’s money was being used to for things outside of the area.
The biggest example of this, which Fritchen has pointed out repeatedly, is that the Mello-Roos money from Weston Ranch was used to fund a portion of the district’s administrative complex on Louise Avenue – something that was never listed in the original bond paperwork.
Since Fritchen’s allegations and the announcement that he’d be pursuing a Proposition 218 election to curtail the spending and limit the district’s access to the money taken in – which would only be used to service the debt on the outstanding bonds that were issued to pay for Weston Ranch High School and the elementary schools in the neighborhood – the district has held a study session with the public to go over the current state of the district’s CFDs and where they will likely go in the future. The funding mechanism was detailed by staff as a critical component of modern educational funding – especially with California’s budget woes in recent years.
The discovery and the entire experience, however, haven’t all been bad for Weston Ranch residents. According to Aanerud, the drive to gather signatures and distribute information has brought a lot of people together and restored the sense of community that she remembers from when she first moved there almost two decades ago.
“This has really been amazing for the community – we’re able to get in touch with people on our Free Weston Ranch page and we have neighbors out there walking the neighborhood and chatting with people and it’s great,” she said. “Weston Ranch has always kind of been the unwanted stepchild of both Stockton and Manteca, and getting to feel like we have some power and a voice is a very positive thing for the people who live here.
“We’re hoping that we can go with that momentum and carry this on into other positive things.”
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email email@example.com or call 209.249.3544.