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Proposed ‘Fee’ On Property Owners Would Fund Clean Water Programs In County

Joshua Silavent - Staff Writer

January 15, 2013 – The Long Beach City Council has thrown its support behind a controversial county ordinance proposal to levy a fee on property owners to pay for clean water programs.

Some call it a tax. It lasts indefinitely, absent a sunset provision. All property owners – homeowners, businesses, school districts, city halls, nonprofits, churches, etc. – must pony up. And even those with the most to gain have described the process that set this policy on the road from idea to law as arcane and underhanded. People feel blindsided. At least those who bothered to read the mailer informing them of their right to protest.

Yet it seems that nearly everyone can agree on two things: clean waters are necessary and costly. “Everyone wants clean water,” said L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe, who opposes the measure. “This is more about being fair and effective and people understanding what they’re voting for.”

According to city staff reports, the Los Angeles River brings “thousands of tons of marine debris and non-point source pollution to our beaches, marina and harbor. Sadly, Long Beach is ground zero for urban runoff filled with litter and chemicals from the L.A. Basin. What starts out as rainfall in communities as far as 40 miles away from Long Beach becomes marine debris and harmful toxins on our beaches, floating in a few feet of water off our shores and collecting in our marinas.”

So there is little doubt that Long Beach could benefit as much as any municipality by the proposed Clean Waters, Clean Beaches Measure. Councilmember Suja Lowenthal, who, along with Councilmember Steven Neal, agendized the item, said the measure was the best opportunity in generations to fund clean water programs.

The proposed fee on property owners in Los Angeles County – about $54 annually for the average homeowner (and higher fees for large commercial and industrial properties) – would fund a variety of restoration, public health and educational programs to combat the environmental ills of stormwater runoff. But there is little clarity beyond this. How and who will manage these programs is undetermined, for example, as is what actually qualifies as an acceptable program.

Moreover, the language of the actual measure is anything but set in stone. Tom Modica, Long Beach’s director of government affairs and strategic initiatives, told the city council January 8 that the actual specifics of the measure would be outlined in an ordinance if and when, and only after, the voting public gives its approval.

In addition, the annual fee would carry on indefinitely, with no sunset provision as yet written. “That troubles me,” said Mayor Bob Foster, even while acknowledging the potential upsides for Long Beach.

The collected fees would be split three ways: 50 percent allocated to the nine watershed authority groups, 40 percent distributed back to municipalities and 10 percent to the county to administer the fee and related expenses. Therefore, it is estimated that the City of Long Beach would receive about $5.1 million to spend on its own stormwater improvement projects, coastal restoration and other ostensibly “green” programs. However, because the city is itself a landowner, it will also have to pay the fee, which comes to about $1.66 million annually. Other public entities owning property, such as school districts, must also pay up. According to spokesperson Chris Eftychiou, the Long Beach Unified School District would be on the hook for about $715,000. The school board voted to oppose the measure in December.

The city council vote was 6-2, with Councilmembers Gerrie Schipske and Al Austin in opposition. Councilman Gary DeLong was absent.

Schipske called the process “very flawed,” adding “We are asked to support something that we don’t have all the information about, which is bad policy making . . . this proposal singles out property owners with no exceptions. It means a small portion of the population will be paying for the rest. I think we have to wait (to vote on this) for the results of the January 15 board of supervisors meeting (and public hearing); they haven’t even worked out all the details.”

Austin added, “This is kind of being forced on us by another public agency. . . . We have a lot of issues to discuss, and I really wish this council could have a workshop and discuss our priorities.”

Protest ballots were mailed to property owners between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, a fact that several residents who spoke during the council meeting said was likely to result in less than half of property owners casting their vote. If this turns out to be the case, then the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors can proceed, if they choose, with a formal mail-in ballot sometime this spring. The board will hold a meeting on January 15, but Knabe said a vote would likely be delayed until all the protest ballots and comments are counted and reviewed.

Modica said the City of Long Beach could be staring down millions of dollars in fines if it falls out of compliance with clean water regulations, a fact that is certainly driving some support for the measure. “What’s more significant is that we are facing well over a billion dollars in TMDL (a calculation of total maximum daily loads of pollutants allowed into waterways) compliance costs in the future that have to be paid for, whether this fee passes or not,” Modica said in an e-mail to the Business Journal.