I talk to the Unitarians sometimes. I'm not much for church myself, but the Unitarians are pretty mellow. My neighbor, who grew up Unitarian, tells me that Unitarians "believe in one God ... at most." There's even an atheist caucus at the Unitarian Church on Franklin Street. That works for me.
So a couple of times a year, they invite me to come and talk to their discussion forum Sunday morning, before services, and I always go — sweet, wonderful people who are about as liberal as religious people get, and they actually listen to me and ask intelligent questions.
So I was there two weeks ago talking about the year ahead in local politics, and after I went on far too long complaining about a city and a society that don't want the wealthy to pay taxes, a woman walked up to the mic and made a really interesting point.
When you get your property tax bill in San Francisco, she said, there's a little box you can check to make a voluntary contribution to the arts. Why, she asked, is there nothing about contributing to the public schools?
It's not an academic point. In most states, local property taxes support local schools. In California, Proposition 13 forced the state to take on that responsibility. Now the state's broke, and education has taken huge cuts. And even if San Francisco wanted to put more local money into the schools, the local budget has no extra room, either.
But almost everyone who owns property in San Francisco is getting a great deal from Prop. 13. My brother owns a house in upstate New York that cost about $100,000 — and his property taxes are higher than mine, and my house in San Francisco cost a good bit more than that. Warren Buffet complained about it to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Buffet's place in Southern California has lower taxes than his home in Omaha — and the tax bills don't exactly reflect the comparative assessed values.
Now, I'm not into charity. I mean, I'm fine with charity, and people should be generous and all that, but when it comes to essential public services, charity won't cut it. Rich people should pay taxes, and elected representatives should decide how to prioritize where the money is spent.
But here we are in San Francisco, with all these wealthy people not paying fair taxes on their property and Prop. 13 seemingly set in stone. So maybe we could start a campaign. It's not hard to figure out how much you're getting away with under Prop. 13. Take the actual value of your house (come on, you know what the place down the street just sold for); multiply it by the current tax rate (it's on the invoice); and subtract the amount of your bill. Yeah, you're saving a lot of money. Some of you are saving a whole lot of money.
Then the tax collector can put a box on the property tax bill that lets you make a voluntary contribution to the public schools that reflects some of that savings. Just some, a little bit. If we all did it, we'd make a huge difference.