Lucille Bennett has watched them for two months now: the great celebrations, the pronouncements of doom. She is not sure what to believe anymore. She does not feel like a hedonist and she does not feel like a revolutionary. She stands in her living room with a small white postcard in her hand and even now, even as the dust begins to settle, all she can really tell you is the outrage that is this card:
One thousand four hundred sixty-five dollars and fifty-nine cents.
The card reached John and Lucille Bennett nine months ago, by first-class mail, as similar card were arriving in households all over Martinez. It told the Bennetts that the three-bedroom house they bought 12 years ago was now worth so much that the original purchase price, $18,500, would barely cover a down payment this year. It told them what the tax rate was and exactly how much they must pay - $1,465.59. That was more property tax than they had ever paid, more than they had ever imagined being ordered to pay by a government that had somehow left them behind.
And it hit all the bruises, this stiff little dunning notice. Sales tax vanished in small change income tax was buried in the paychecks, inflation just made everything worse. But the property tax came thunking down all at once and every bad memory came with it:
The snooty city of official who wouldn't provide a back hoe so the neighbors could clear a park. The young people buying ice cream with food stamps while Mrs. Bennett stood in line holding ice milk and margarine. The cop who bullied the neighborhood boys and kept ticketing the Bennetts in from of their own house.
In some complicated way that nobody had ever articulated quite like the blunt Californian named Howard Jarvis, the Bennetts' property tax was connected to helplessness, to frustration, to the quiet rage of hard-working people unable to figure out why the bills never got any easier and the government did not seem to care.
The Bennetts voted on Proposition 13, the tax limitation initiative.
"People have to have a little bit of hope of some day not needing to work so hard," says Lucille Bennett.
"When you have to live for your home," it's no good," says John Bennett.
Throughout California, in the second half of this extraordinary summer, there are only two certainties about Proposition 13.One is the conviction of people like John and Lucille Bennett that their propoerty taxes must go down. The other certainty is that nobody - from Gov. Jerry Brown to Howard Jarvis to the elderly lady in Los Angeles who is said to have cried. "This is the second Boston Tea Party." before voting yes - knows exactly what Proposition 13 is going to do.
The drop in property taxes statewide will be massive next year - about $7 billion, or 60 percent, by most estimates. But because the state surplus of $5 billion or more has been allocated to bail out local governments this year, most people believe it will be at least a year and probably more before Proposition 13 really makes itself felt throughout the state.
It may turn out to have been a brief, violent flurry of public attention that ultimately does little to change the level of government services or the over-all tax rate.
It may expand into a movement big enough and powerful enough to change the entire nation's attitude toward taxation and government financing - "a revolution without bullets," as Martinez Mayor John Sparacino says.
Clearly, Proposition 13 is a major social experiment, but precisely what kind is anybody's guess.
This series will report on one county and its reaction to Proposition 13. The county is called Contra Costa, Spanish for "opposite coast," which is what you see from the San Francisco waterfront looking northeast across the bay at the big gray shipyards of Richmond and the gold and olive hills beyond. It is not a typical California county. The word "typical" loses a little something in the state that produced the John Birch Society and Cesar Chavez, the Bank of America and the Symbionese Liberation Army.
If you got in your car this afternoon and drove into Contra Costa County, there are already certain changes you would see. You might pass the three closed branch libraries in Richmond, and the five community centers that are now empty and usually locked. In much of the county, school have been closed all summer. In Martinez, the daily street sweeping has been cut back to twice a week. And if you had the sharp eye of Sam Satre, the Martinez public works director, you might notice fine cracks developing along Pine Street between Mellus and Susana, that may grow into potholes because the city has not enough maintenance men to get to them yet.
You would not see much. Proposition 13 is mostly theory right now, the exploratory deliberations of government officials forced to re-examine every dollar spent from property tax revenues.
Lee Walton, the Martinez city manager, describes listening over and over to complaints that the layoffs never reach "fat-cat" supervisors, then hearing people complain about unsupervised work crews leaning on their shovels. He says he has sat citizens down in his office, with copies of the city budget, asking them to show him where to cut.
When county administrator Joe Connery says there may not be enough money to fully fund certain school services for handicapped children, he is asked how that is possible, since those are state-mandated services. He makes a noise something like a laugh, and says. "We're gonna voilate so goddam many mandates you won't believe it."
But still they proceed, like blindfolded surgeons, and the county is heading toward its first fiscal year under Proposition 13.
The Bennetts' 14-year-old son Andy will be a freshman at College Park High School, which is part of the county's largest school district and might simply have shut down this year, according to officials, if the state bailout money had not come through. Now it will open, and Andy may notice only a few things - a small athlettic budget, poor landscaping, no reading aides for the English teachers. But equally present will be a school system furiously trying to rein in, while so caught up in regulations and contractual obligations that it is facing the school year with 450 unassigned teachers. And at the same time, it is giving non-teaching employes seminars in the fine points of "bumping" - making sure the people with the least seniority get laid off first.
The city of Pleasant Hill managed to get to summer 1978 with no property tax - and so no proposition 13 cutbacks - while Martinez, right next door, had a going-away party for the 27 employes it laid off. Much of the reason was sales-tax revenues, which Pleasant Hill had in abundance and Martinez did not. Martinez Mayor Sparacino already knows what that means for future annexation of limited-revenue residential areas: "We don't want 'em.' And he figures the town will covet new business more than ever for the sales tax it generates.
Way out east near Oakley, barely within commuting distance of the Bay Area cities, Robert and Norma Dal Portos' cattle ranch sits right in the path of steadily growing housing developments. There are a lot of things wrong with that, from the cattleman's point of view, and one of the worst is the way it increases property assessments. The Dal Portos have thought about moving away. They should receive their first post-13 assessment in about two weeks. Mrs. Dal Porto is not about to make any decisions now, but Proposition 13. she says, just might help them - or ranchers like them - stay put.
Claude Van Marter, director of human resources, says the county has already decided to charge for some immunizations and clinic services. "If you want to get your kids a smallpox vaccination, you have basically two choices," he said. "You go to your private doctor or you go to the public health department. What we're going to have to do now is start charging at driver education or a smallpox shot, a lot of money, he says - maybe $1 or $2 a visit. But it may be a signal that many services are no longer the public's responsibility - that whether it is driver education or smallpox shot, the user ought to bear the cost.
And what of next year, Van Marter demands? Social service programs - Aid to Families With Dependent Children, foster care, and Medi-Cal - among others - have mostly been funded until now by county, state, and federal dollars. As part of this year's bailout package, the state paid the county's share, traditionally a massive chunk of the county budget. What happens in 1979, or 1980? Given the constraint of state and federal man dates for certain levels of service, win a welfare recipient be more carefully scrutinized, receive less money? Will the money come from altogether new places?
The cuts are experimental, the questions are proliferating, and the crisis atmosphere generated two months ago is only beginning to dissipate. There are shifts already in the complex network of power involving local, county, state and federal government. And although few people in the state can imagine such a thing - the very suggestion brings panic to the faces of already harried budget jugglers - it is possible that the California Supreme Court, now faces with three lawsuits challenging the initiative, will find the new law unconstitutional and throw out all or part of Proposition 13.
The months to come will offer a few answers - short-term answers, anyway. Legal arguments will be heard, budgets will receive final approval, schools will open, and John and Lucille Bennett, if all goes according to plan, will find in their mailbox a notice from the tax collector's office, listing their rolled-back assessment and their new tax rate, 1 percent. It will be this year's version of last year's little white card.