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Manteca Unified School District v. Reclamation District No. 17

California Court of Appeals, Third District, San Joaquin

April 7, 2017

MANTECA UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff, Cross-defendant and Appellant,
v.
RECLAMATION DISTRICT NO. 17 et al., Defendants, Cross-complainants and Appellants.

         APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of San Joaquin County, No. 39201100273848CUMCSTK Bobby W. McNatt, Judge. Reversed.

          Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, Michael J. Baker, David A. Soldani and Jennifer D. Cantrell for Plaintiff, Cross-defendant and Appellant.

          Burke, Williams & Sorensen, Megan A. Burke; California School Boards Association, Keith Bray and Joshua Daniels for California School Boards Association Education Legal Alliance as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff, Cross-defendant and Appellant.

          Freeman Firm, Thomas H. Keeling and Michael N. Morlan for Defendants, Cross-complainants and Appellants.

          Downey Brand, Scott L. Shapiro, Andrea P. Clark and Amanda M. Pearson for California Central Valley Flood Control Association as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendants, Cross-complainants and Appellants.

          Neumiller & Beardslee, Daniel J. Schroeder and Caitlin R. Dwelley for Reclamation District No. 1608 and Reclamation District No. 1614 as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants, Cross-complainants and Appellants.

          RAYE, P. J.

         At its core, this case involves the interpretation, and application of Water Code section 51200 and articles XIII C and XIII D of the California Constitution, as approved by California voters in 1996 as Proposition 218, and the interplay between them.[1] Defendants and cross-complainants Reclamation District No. 17 and Governing Board of Reclamation District 17 (collectively Reclamation) maintain levees and other reclamation works within the district's boundaries. Plaintiff and cross-defendant Manteca Unified School District (School) owns real property within Reclamation's boundaries. School filed an action for declaratory relief, arguing section 51200 exempts it from paying assessments to Reclamation and Proposition 218 does not confer such authority. School also sought recovery of over $299, 000 previously collected by Reclamation. Reclamation answered and cross-complained for declaratory relief.

         The trial court found the assessments levied by Reclamation were invalid under section 51200 but denied recovery of assessment payments made during the pendency of the action and concluded School's action was not barred by the statute of limitations. Reclamation appeals, arguing section 51200 and Proposition 218 allow assessments against school district property unless the district can show through clear and convincing evidence that the property receives no special benefit. School cross-appeals, contending the trial court erred in denying recovery for assessments paid during the pendency of the case.

         The trial court erred in declining to apply the constitutional mandate of Proposition 218 to the statutory exemption from assessments provided by section 51200. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment and dismiss the cross-appeal.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The facts are undisputed and are set forth in the joint statement of facts.

         Reclamation, located in San Joaquin County, annually assesses properties for which it provides flood control and drainage benefits. School is a public school district that owns real property within Reclamation's boundaries.

         In 1951 the Legislature adopted section 51200, which was derived from former Political Code section 3456c. Section 51200 states, in pertinent part: “The assessment levied by a [reclamation] district shall include all lands and rights of way within the district, owned by the State or by any city, county, public corporation, or utility district formed under the laws of the State other than public roads, highways, and school districts.” (§ 51200, italics added.)

         Proposition 218

         In 1996 California voters approved Proposition 218, entitled “Voter Approval for Local Government Taxes. Limitations on Fees, Assessments, and Changes. Initiative Constitutional Amendment.” The proposition added articles XIII C and XIII D to the California Constitution. Section 4, subdivision (a) of article XIII D states: “Parcels within a district that are owned or used by any agency [or] the State of California... shall not be exempt from assessment unless the agency can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that those publicly owned parcels in fact receive no special benefit.”

         Section 1 of article XIII D provides: “Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the provisions of this article shall apply to all assessments, fees and charges, whether imposed pursuant to state statute or local government charter authority. Nothing in this article... shall be construed to:

         “(a) Provide any new authority to any agency to impose a tax, assessment, fee, or charge.” (Cal. ...


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