Residents force fee plan to circle the drain
By: Valley Press Staff
Acton and Agua Dulce residents won’t see a new county fee on their property tax bills any time in the near future.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday temporarily tabled a plan to charge property owners in Los Angeles County $54 to $83 a year to fund the cleanup of waterways inside the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, which excludes most of the Antelope Valley. Acton and Agua Dulce property owners are included, though, because storm water runoff from those areas drains toward the ocean.
The board acknowledged nearly two months ago that the plan needed to be reworked, and Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose 5th District includes those two communities, spoke out against what he characterized as a tax.
Swayed by the number of protests against the plan since then, supervisors Gloria Molina and Don Knabe introduced a formal recommendation against instituting the measure “at this time.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky championed the “Clean Water, Clean Beaches” measure as a cost-effective way to reduce urban runoff – including trash and toxic substances such as industrial solvents, lead, mercury and infection-causing bacteria – into county waterways and the ocean. It was the result of years of work to reach consensus among dozens of municipalities and environmental organizations.
But Yaroslavsky seemed resigned Tuesday to taking a step back. He recommended that county staffers draft a 2014 ballot measure asking voters to fund projects to address stormwater and urban runoff pollution, adding to the Molina-Knabe motion. He then voted along with the rest of the board to table the Clean Water measure.
As proposed, more than 50% of property owners would have had to protest the fee in order to avoid a ballot survey of owners to decide the measure’s fate. As of Tuesday morning, 113,422 property owners, just over 5% of the total, had filed a valid objection, according to the board’s executive officer.
Nevertheless, the board voted 4-1 not to move forward. Instead, county staffers were directed to work with schools, businesses and nonprofit organizations to try to address their concerns, and to educate the public about stormwater pollution.
County lawyers were asked to draft a ballot measure seeking voter support for an alternate funding mechanism, aiming for a 2014 election.
Antonovich cast the dissenting vote. Though he opposed the Clean Water measure, he objected to the language about drafting a new measure. “Stormwater cleanup is the state’s responsibility and the Legislature and governor need to develop a statewide approach to solving this problem,” the supervisor said. “County residents, school districts, businesses and churches should not be burdened with higher taxes to support another state unfunded mandate.”
The hearing had been rescheduled from January when supervisors delayed action on the plan following protests from hundreds of property owners. The board deemed the public outreach effort insufficient and ineffective.
The Acton Town Council and the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District governing board voted in January to oppose the fees. The fees would be applied to school grounds as well as to private property.
Elected officials, school district representatives and residents, including 35 people from Acton and Agua Dulce, on Tuesday spoke out against more fees at a time when many property owners are already struggling economically. While fees for a typical homeowner would average $54 annually, large commercial property owners could pay thousands of dollars, according to the Department of Public Works. Also, houses on larger lots would pay more based on the amount of “impervious” area the portion of the property that is paved or built on, theoretically affecting how much rain water runs off it.
The county’s cost of complying with federal clean water regulations was more than $350 million in 2012, according to Yaroslavsky.
Santa Clarita City Councilman TimBen Boydston, who called the fee “a tax on rain,” mocked it by suggesting “perhaps a tax on sunshine … or a tax on air.”
Carol Horton, of the Citrus Community College District in the San Gabriel Valley, said her district would have to pay “a staggering $42,937” under the measure. She and others argued that school districts should be exempted from the fee, which was intended to raise about $200 million annually.
Opponents also argued that the measure lacked detail on the projects to be funded, and contended the ballot process was designed to push the measure through without scrutiny, while environmentalists and other elected officials hailed the measure as critical to supporting local cleanup efforts and weaning the county off its expensive, imported water supply.
“We urge you to move forward with your historic effort to fund clean water and fund clean beaches and let the voters decide,” said Fran Diamond, emeritus chairwoman of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.
Some city officials, like those from Santa Clarita, argued that the measure duplicates local cleanup programs, while others, including the mayor of Inglewood, said regional support was critical to paying for expensive local cleanup. A spokesman for Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz asked the board “not to kick it (the plan) down the road.”
Molina said she was initially surprised by the opposition of some city officials, saying she told those in her district that “you’re going to get fined, you’re going to get sanctioned” for not complying with federal regulations. But other concerns they raised, including questions about how the money would be spent, convinced her that the measure needed more work.
Yaroslavsky worried about the challenges ahead.
“It will take four votes to put this on the ballot,” Yaroslavsky said. “That will be a steep mountain to climb.”
The board asked staffers to report back in 90 days.