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Several downtown Petaluma business owners are challenging a 13-year-old, self-imposed taxing district meant to promote a safe, vibrant shopping area and encourage visitors to spend money in the historic heart of town.

The tax, actually a "business improvement district" levy between $41 and $500 a year depending on size, location and type of business, has raised only about three-quarters as much as was expected.

And, more importantly, several business owners complain that the revenue isn't being spent wisely, transparently or in a way that helps downtown retailers.

The Petaluma Downtown Association, which administers the annual proceeds of about $55,000, says it welcomes any unhappy merchants to become active in the association's committees and share their ideas about how the fund should be handled.

"Downtown Petaluma should look as good as Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa," said Holly Wick of Athletic Soles at Petaluma Boulevard North and Western Avenue. "It shouldn't be a drunkfest. We shouldn't have our streets closed five days a year.

About 20 business owners have signed a letter to the city outlining their concerns and asking the City Council to delay reauthorizing the annual assessment until their questions are answered.

Wick is threatening to gather enough support to dissolve the entire program. To do so she'll need endorsement from members whose levies equal a majority of the total assessment. She wants the city to take over the tax program.

"The very people it's meant to protect are almost bullied. And we never get any answers."

Jeff Mayne, elected president of the Petaluma Downtown Association, expressed surprise this week about the unhappiness of those who signed the letter. He said no one had contacted the PDA to discuss their concerns.

He said he will meet "anytime, anyplace, anywhere" with them and resolve the problems, saying the district's spending is public record.

But, he added, not all of those who are complaining are holding up their end of the bargain. One in five of those who signed the letter haven't paid their assessments, he said.

"It's kind of hard to take it seriously when somebody's saying you need to do more, and you're not even paying what we're asking you to pay so we can do what we do," he said.

More than 600 businesses fall within the district's boundaries, roughly centered at Petaluma Boulevard and Western Avenue and radiating outward about a half-mile. In 2000, downtown businesses sought a way to raise funds for their special interests — security, beautification and marketing — and convinced the council to approve the assessment district. Revenues from the annual fee, which is attached to an owner's business license, is administered by the volunteer downtown association with no City Council intervention.

It can be dissolved only by agreement of a majority vote.

Mayne's offer to meet isn't enough, merchants say. They want to meet with the downtown association board, which they say hasn't been told of their previous concerns that date back years.

That isn't an option, Mayne said, since the board meetings aren't open and aren't held regularly.

"All we want is clean streets and low crime," said Regina Leoni, whose family has operated I Leoni culinary specialty store on Kentucky Street for nine years. "And if we can get those two things, maybe some cute planter boxes."

She said retailers aren't trying to be adversarial with the downtown association, but said the problems are larger than a volunteer operation like it can handle.

Issues like sidewalk cleaning after drunk patrons of local bars vomit or defecate in other businesses' doorsteps aren't being prioritized, she said. Many retailers also oppose their streets being closed several times a year for parades and other events that they say don't encourage shopping.

Mayne invited unhappy merchants to seek election to the downtown association board or join the budget committee.

Leoni and Wick said they and other merchants feel it's too late for that.

"Year after year, we've been hoping to be heard and received nothing but lip service — or outright condescension," Leoni said.

City Council members seemed disinclined to take over a fund that was specifically set up by and for the benefit of downtown business owners. Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said it may take a "structural change" to solve the problems.

"Clearly there is a need of communication here," she said.

City Manager John Brown said he will meet with those involved soon. The issue will come before the council in January.

(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com.)