First published in the Oct. 2 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Following an intense discussion, the Burbank City Council voted this week not to pursue a ballot measure that would tax the city’s biggest parcels to fund the school district and municipal services.
Little information regarding the potential tax was available at the council’s Tuesday meeting, as city staff members had brought only a first-step agenda item to gather input from the group about how — and whether — to craft it. If approved by both the council and more than two-thirds of Burbank voters, it would likely have taken aim at the parcels on which Burbank’s major corporations, such as Amazon and Warner Bros., are located.
But most of the council appeared opposed to the tax idea from the outset, with three members later voting to direct staff not to pursue it. Some members also expressed frustration with the Burbank Unified School District Board of Education in an unusually vocal manner, saying it wasn’t sufficiently committed to working with the city.
Councilman Konstantine Anthony, who requested on Aug. 10 that the topic be placed on the agenda, provided the sole vote in the potential tax’s defense, while Councilman Nick Schultz recused himself from the discussion out of concern that his wife’s employment with NBC Universal — a significant property — could pose a potential conflict of interest.
Anthony argued that the parcel tax would provide funding for both the school district — which for years has faced financial difficulties and budget cuts — and the city’s own initiatives such as rental assistance, homelessness services and new infrastructure.
“It would get us back to that world-class city that we’re always talking about. If we don’t have a thriving school district, I think we’re going to going to be stuck,” Anthony said, “and we’re going to start to see good teachers leave and we’re going to start to see the schools deteriorate.”
Both proponents and critics of the potential parcel tax noted that the BUSD has twice failed to get enough votes to implement the policy. In March, 64.12% of voters supported a measure proposing the tax, just short of the 66.67% needed. A similar measure garnered an approval rate of 64.33% in 2018.
Though Anthony said exempting small businesses, apartment buildings and other establishments on smaller parcels could get the measure the support it needs, his colleagues argued that the approach was too risky. The tax could push Burbank’s biggest corporations to move elsewhere, they worried, with Vice Mayor Jess Talamantes pointing to Walt Disney Co.’s recently announced plans to relocate 2,000 jobs to Florida.
Councilwoman Sharon Springer grilled Anthony regarding his proposal, particularly questioning his connection to Tax Amazon Burbank, a group that has advocated for the parcel tax in recent months and has connections with a similar movement in Seattle that successfully pushed for a payroll-based tax. Anthony, a Democratic Socialist, has served as a featured speaker during at least one of the group’s meetings in a personal capacity.
Springer pointed out that Tax Amazon Burbank’s website mentions COVID-19 relief and Green New Deal programs — which the group says will be funded by Seattle’s tax — while the brief on Burbank’s parcel tax concept didn’t. She accused Anthony of not practicing transparency and expressed concern that if large companies were to leave Burbank, smaller businesses that work with them will lose revenue.
“Burbank succeeded in trying to become the entertainment capital of the world, and trying to tear that down is unwise,” Springer said.
But Anthony countered that Tax Amazon Burbank wasn’t involved in the council’s discussion, adding that he doesn’t believe a parcel tax would cause businesses to flee the city.
“At the end of the day, there’s no way we can simply determine our policies by whatever corporation is dictating to us,” he said. “If we allow the biggest businesses in Burbank to tell us what to do, then we’re not really working in the interests of the electorate — we’re only working in the interests of corporations.”
Anthony’s arguments ultimately failed to persuade the three other members of the council, which voted to explicitly tell department officials not to move forward with the policy.
COUNCIL MEMBERS AIR FRUSTRATIONS OVER BUSD
One entity’s input was noticeably absent from the discussion: the local school district’s. Anthony said that he didn’t speak with its representatives regarding the agenda item out of fear of violating the Brown Act’s prohibitions on private meetings between officials, though Mayor Bob Frutos pointed out that an individual conversation between a council member and a school board member wouldn’t break those rules.
In a rare public display of a council member’s grievances with another locally elected body, Frutos also voiced his concern that no one from the BUSD board had reached out to him about the potential tax, and noted frustration that he and Talamantes, despite being Hispanic officials in Burbank, hadn’t been invited to the recent renaming ceremony at Dolores Huerta Middle School.
“The school board, in my humble opinion, is always looking after … themselves and not willing to collaborate with the city,” Frutos said, adding that the district’s representatives hadn’t thanked Burbank staff members for arranging vaccination clinics for school employees.
Talamantes expressed similar irritation about the lack of an invite to the renaming event and rejected the notion that the city wasn’t supporting local schools, pointing out that municipal coffers have helped fund the district’s initiatives. The city currently supports the school’s crossing guards and counseling programs, among others.
Steve Frintner, president of the BUSD board, said in an email that he became aware of the parcel tax discussion a few days before the council’s meeting, but that neither the City Council nor municipal staff members had asked school officials for their input. He also said that the city manager was told that council members could attend the renaming event if they passed a testing-or-vaccination policy, which they did the Tuesday prior to the event; Frintner noted he wasn’t sure why council members didn’t attend.
“The school board members, including myself, always have and will continue to seek opportunities to partner with City Council on items of mutual concern,” he said.