NOVATO, Calif. (KGO) --Several Bay Area school districts support themselves with voter-approved parcel taxes. And in many communities, senior citizens can opt out of paying the tax. However, many seniors don't realize they are exempt.
It comes as a surprise to a lot of people even though school districts use it as a selling point in their campaigns. They recognize many seniors live on a fixed income and don't have kids in school any more and aren't likely to vote on a school tax. So in many communities, seniors can get a free pass around the parcel tax. However, one Marin County couple just found that out after paying the tax for 16 years.
Novato public schools get a big boost from local residents.
"Elementary music teachers, a lot of computer technology resources," Novato Unified School District spokesperson Leslie Benjamin said.
A parcel tax raises more than $4 million a year for coaches, computers, smaller classes and more.
"We are very fortunate and thank the Novato community for that," Benjamin said.
Last May, residents voted overwhelmingly to tax themselves for another eight years, $251 per year per house, but not every house.
"So I said we should not pay this one," Fe Garrison said.
She and her husband Tom Garrison just realized they have been paying the tax even though they didn't have to.
"I was like wait a minute, we've been exempt for a long time because my husband is like 82, 81-years-old," Fe said.
She noticed it on the campaign flyer for the tax measure in May. It says, seniors over 65 are eligible for an exemption. Tom turned 65 back in 1998, which means they paid the tax for 16 years longer than required.
"So I went to the school district," Fe said.
Fe asked Novato school officials to pay them back all that money. She figured they were owed about $3,000 .
"And she bluntly told me, there's no way she can refund the fees," Fe said.
The school district spends the money every year so, it was already gone.
"So I told her, 'I'm gonna do anything in my power to get this money back,'" Fe said.
She contacted 7 On Your Side and we spoke with Assistant Superintendent Karen Maloney. She says seniors don't automatically get the tax break.
"You have to apply for it and it's different than saying everyone who is 65 and older have this exemption," Maloney said.
Under the law, seniors over 65 do qualify, but they must fill out a one-time application with the school district and turn it in by December 31 of that year or the tax stays on their bill.
The district won't reimburse for prior years.
"Going forward you can have the exemption, but not retro," Maloney said.
However, the district did take a closer look at the Garrisons' situation and made an exception.
"Absolutely it was a compromise," Maloney said.
The Garrisons received a refund for the past six years since 2009. That's when the tax was bumped up to the current level.
"Really feel good. Was able to pay some bills," Fe said.
Novato unified officials told 7 On Your side many seniors want to pay the tax to help schools succeed and that in turn can increases property values. If you are over 65 you may want to check your property tax bill to see if it includes a school parcel tax. Check with the school district as you may be exempt.