Cities all over the state are rushing to protect and defend their RDAs, and Menlo Park is no different. The agencies are threatened by Gov. Jerry Brown, who wants to strip whatever unencumbered funds are available from RDAs to help balance the state budget this year and then pay for schools in subsequent years.
And even if the Legislature votes to take away RDA funds, it is almost certain that cities will sue to stop it, which could tie up the funds in court for years. (By Almanac press time Monday, the Legislature had not endorsed Gov. Brown's takeover of RDAs.)
On the local level, Menlo Park resident Jennifer Bestor, whose children attend central Menlo Park schools, argued in an Almanac Guest Opinion last week that the Las Pulgas district takes away $1.8 million a year that otherwise would go to local elementary and high schools. Instead, schools receive just a fraction of the total revenue that comes to the RDA ($10,000 for Menlo Park City School District and $150,000 for the Sequoia Union High School District).
As basic-aid school districts, Sequoia and Menlo Park City are primarily funded by local property taxes, so dollars lost to the RDA come right out of the school district's pocket, Ms. Bestor says, adding that the loss comes at a time when the districts are seeing significantly more students, but no corresponding funding increase. For example, the Menlo Park district is in the midst of rebuilding its Hillview middle school campus to accommodate a huge enrollment increase, and the district has made room for more students at its other campuses.
Not surprisingly, the city has a different point of view, as seen in the Guest Opinion by City Manager Glen Rojas on the adjoining page. He says that property values today would not be where they are without the improvements made possible by redevelopment funds. Improvements slowly began to add value to the tax rolls when the district was created in 1981, and reached today's much higher levels after many capital improvements were made.
For 2010-11, the city expects the incremental taxes over 1981 to be $10.6 million, of which almost half is committed to debt service on bonds issued for projects in the district. When all other obligations are paid, income of only about $1 million will remain that could be designated to support the schools.
In the Almanac's Town Square Forum, a Belle Haven resident notes that without redevelopment funds, Belle Haven would not have a community center, a full soccer field or a swimming pool. Projects such as these are enhancing the quality of life in eastern Menlo Park, and would not have been possible without the RDA funds, the poster said.
History has shown that RDA projects have returned good value to Menlo Park, a record that supports the district's continuation as is, at least for now. If Gov. Brown's RDA-busting plan is approved, there is no doubt that it will be more difficult to pay for improvements in the eastern part of the city, and it remains to be seen if schools will benefit from the state takeover a year later, as promised by Gov. Brown.
Over the last 10 years Menlo Park schools have benefited tremendously from the run-up of real estate values, and can easily get by without the revenues lost to the Menlo Park RDA. It should also be noted that Belle Haven and East Palo Alto elementary students attend schools in the state-supported Ravenswood Elementary School District, which receives far less per pupil than west side schools, including Menlo Atherton and Woodside.
In future years, perhaps Menlo Park's Pulgas district can opt to share more of its tax income with schools and other special districts. And more privately funded development could take place around the new Facebook headquarters and the Menlo Gateway project, which could lessen the need to generate capital projects from the Pulgas revenue and open the door to the city sharing a much larger portion with local school districts.