Los Angeles County residents will see a new charge on their property tax bills this fall. Measure W, which was approved by county residents last November, will implement a parcel tax that is intended to increase stormwater capture. The intent is to increase local water supply, improve water quality and invest in community projects.
Measure W, or the Safe Clean Water Program, will charge its tax based on impermeable area, as opposed to property value. According to a county fact sheet, an impermeable area is defined as a site covered by hardscape-like materials, such as structures, asphalt and concrete.
Officials will calculate a property’s impermeable area based on the county’s landcover survey which is derived from data from various digital resources, such as aerial imagery from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Imagery Program.
Matt Frary, civil engineer with the Los Angeles County Flood Control District and an expert on the program, said the tax will charge residents 2.5 cents per square foot of impermeable area. Los Angeles County officials developed a tax calculator to help determine how much a specific property might be charged. The calculator can be found here.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance creating implementation guidelines and procedures for the parcel tax at its August 6 meeting. Frary said the tax is expected to roll out in October.
The annual revenue from the tax is expected to be up to $285 million, Frary said. The funds will be distributed as follows: 50% for regional projects that seek to benefit the community; 40% for cities “as a local return” to benefit the jurisdiction where the tax is collected; and 10% will be allocated for county educational programs, technical assistance, job training, Los Angeles County Flood Control District projects and program administration.
As part of the Safe Clean Water Program, municipalities in the county will each have the opportunity to propose regional project ideas for the program to benefit the community. Governance committees were established to review ideas and facilitate the process. The committees include: a regional oversight committee, comprised of experts representing the focus areas of the program; nine watershed area steering committees, comprised of members from municipalities, agencies and the community; and a scoring committee, comprised of experts representing the program focus areas.
Frary explained that the watershed area steering committees will convene to consider project concepts. The public will be able to provide input on the discussions. The steering committees will identify what concepts are feasible and will then pass them along to the scoring committee for review. The scoring committee determines a project’s validity based on criteria that are aligned with the Safe Clean Water Program’s goals. The scoring committee will then send its project “score” back to the steering committees for review.
The steering committees will then consider the scoring committee’s comments, make revisions accordingly and then forward the proposal to the regional oversight committee for another review. Final consideration for project implementation will go to the county board of supervisors, according to Frary.
He clarified that the above process falls under the program’s 50% regional project budget. About 40% of the budget is distributed directly to cities for them to independently create and manage their own projects. “The City of Long Beach [projects, for instance,] do not go to the watershed area steering committees,” Frary said, explaining that the county wanted to provide municipalities the freedom to develop their own stormwater plans. He said the steering committees were organized to focus on county projects.
“There is some flexibility built in there, but then there’s still the accountability, through reporting and audits,” he added. “And the regional oversight committee does still have a small role with all the municipalities to help make sure the goals of the program are being met.”
Frary said revenue from the tax will first be available sometime in spring 2020, at which time funding will be allocated to the various municipalities, or cities. He added that a call for projects, or a request of programs, is projected to begin sometime in the fall.
The stormwater tax has a 30-year re-evaluation clause that will determine the necessity of the program, according to Frary. But throughout that three-decade period, program leaders will host periodic updates to evaluate the distribution of funds and program’s effectiveness.
Frary clarified that the $285 million is the maximum projected revenue from the tax and does not factor in qualifying credit exemptions, reductions and appeals. There are various tax relief components to the program. For example, low-income senior residents, who are a minimum age of 62 and own a property, may qualify for an exemption. The program’s ordinance provides opportunities for tax credits up to 100% for qualifying properties, a credit-trading appeals process and an income-based tax-reduction program.
Michael Lewis, chairman of the Measure W working group with the Los Angeles County Business Federation (BizFed), said the organization played a role in adding some of the tax relief components to the implementation ordinance. Lewis said the county added a number of provisions, including the opportunity for property owners to get a reduction in tax if they are already performing some type of stormwater capture.
Another recommendation was to create a credit-trading program, which would encourage property owners to cooperate with each other in creating joint projects that would benefit the community. “Although the county hasn’t put that framework in place yet, it is a provision of the measure that we thought was important,” he said. “I think that’s a way for them to get some projects built that might not otherwise get built and without having to do a tax at all.”
By mid-September, the tax exemption forms will officially be available at the Los Angeles County Flood Control District’s program website at safecleanwaterla.org, according to Frary. He added that the first application will apply to tax years 2020 and 2021. “One application will get you two years’ worth of exemptions once approved,” he said.
Lewis said the tax exemption for qualifying property owners would last two years before they have to reapply again. “That’s going to be very awkward, and people are going to forget about it,” he said. “It’s not like a homeowner’s exemption, where you pay for it once and it stays with the property as long as you own it.”
In regard to the tax revenue, Lewis said the fund distribution is too thin to feasibly implement any projects; in his view, the first wave of revenue will be distributed between so many municipalities that there won’t be enough funds to do anything. “It’s going to take some time to ramp up to be able to have enough money to do one of these projects,” he said. “These projects are not inexpensive. I mean, you’re talking about capturing stormwater from some significant areas, and it’s going to take some significant infrastructure to do that.”
Susan Shelley, vice president of communications for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, criticized the parcel tax, calling it “not well thought-out” and “too expensive.” Shelley acknowledged that the state’s recent drought did raise concern about the water supply. However, she said the tax is not going to be sufficient enough to fund the goals the county has outlined.
“Politically speaking, I think they took advantage of public anxiety and pushed through a tax increase,” she said. “We remain concerned about new taxes for taxpayers in California, because we have the highest taxes in the country, and people are very burdened by it.”
Elizabeth Lambe, executive director of the Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, said she is a proponent of the tax, calling it a potentially steady form of revenue for initiatives that will benefit the environment. “It’s an opportunity for green solutions to improve water quality and keep pollution out of Los Cerritos Wetlands,” she said.
Mark Stanley, executive officer of the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, said the program will allow the county to use water more constructively. “We’re supportive of the type of effort that they’re trying to move forward,” he said. “We’re going to be monitoring the types of impacts it may create in terms of habitat protection.”