The Santa Clara Open Space Authority has been piling up over $50 million most of this decade because it added a fee to people’s property taxes to pay for open space, trails and other things. A trouble-making anti-tax group sued, saying the fee was actually an illegal tax, and took its case all the way to the California Supreme Court, which sided with the anti-taxers. From this morning’s Mercury News:

The Supreme Court struck down a special fee on Santa Clara County property owners meant to pay for open-space acquisition, possibly wiping out a $56 million reserve collected over the past seven years.

The decision came in a case that has been closely watched across California, as local government officials have struggled to find new ways to pay for mosquito control, street improvements and other community needs.

The county’s Open Space Authority established the property assessment in 2001 to acquire open space from Milpitas to Morgan Hill. After property owners in the area approved the fee in a mail-only vote, 300,000 of them began paying $20 more per year.

But the justices found that the assessment violated Proposition 218. The 12-year-old law is known as the “Right to Vote on Taxes Act” because it was designed to limit local governments’ ability to raise revenue without voter approval.

The court said that since the broad land-acquisition plan in theory benefited the entire community, not just property owners who bore the burden of the fee, the assessment should have been put to a countywide vote.

My hunch is the open-space folks in the South Bay felt a bit intimidated by the excellent batch of parks owned by the Mid-Peninsula Open Space Authority and wanted an Open Space Authority of their very own, but they didn’t want to muck up the works by, you know, letting the people decide (of course the people were hoodwinked into voting for a proposition requiring a three-quarters vote for new taxes, effectively guaranteeing they’ll never get any new services, no matter how bad they need them, because 26 percent of any population will vote against new taxes on general principles).

A more apt summation: right-wing shills kill a perfectly reasonable — and cheap — property tax assessment that has the perfectly laudable goal of setting aside open space for recreation and habitat preservation. I’ll grant you that government tends to have an insatiable appetite for taxpayers’ money, but there’s no way, shape or form in which this pittance of a fee is enabling government’s worst tendencies. In fact, it’s one of the few things government can get right.