A plan to tax property owners to fund the federally-mandated clean-up of local waterways will go before Los Angeles County voters in November, based on a 4-1 vote Tuesday by Board of Supervisors.
Supervisor Sheila Kuehl championed the measure, dubbed the Safe Clean Water Program, for a parcel tax that, if passed, is expected to raise $300 million annually to capture, clean and conserve stormwater that currently runs downstream, polluting rivers and beaches.
“Every year a full 100 billion gallons of water runs down our curbs and out into the ocean,” picking up trash and toxins along the way, Kuehl said. “We have to get water-wise.”
Kuehl and dozens of environmental advocates said the measure would both increase local water supplies and improve water quality, while prioritizing projects that have additional benefits such as creating additional green space and protecting wildlife.
Shelley Luce, president and CEO of the nonprofit Heal the Bay, argued that the measure would “save millions of dollars of taxpayer dollars” by putting the county in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.
But opponents urged the board to rework elements of the plan, calling it “not ready for voters.”
Many demanded a sunset clause for what would otherwise be a “forever tax,” and accused the board of creating an overly burdensome process for property owners to get credit for improvements that support conservation.
“Without … this (sunset) clause, this tax stands very little chance of passage. Get it right. Don’t be greedy,” said Laura Olhasso of the Pasadena-Foothills Association of Realtors.
In 2013, an effort by then-Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to pass a parcel tax was abandoned in the face of strong opposition from business owners, school districts and some cities that said it duplicated their own efforts.
This time out, with four new board members, the proposed tax is geared to reflect how heavily property owners rely on county flood control systems. It would charge 2.5 cents per square foot of “impermeable areas” such as concrete roofs, driveways and sidewalks that contribute to runoff. Yards and other green space, where stormwater is absorbed rather than running into drainage systems, are not included in the calculation.
“It’s a fairness issue,” Department of Public Works Director Mark Pestrella told City News Service.
The median tax is estimated at $83 per year and interested property owners can calculate their bill at www.safecleanwaterla.org. The site relies on GIS mapping to identify hard-scaped areas versus green space.
Schools would be exempt from the tax.
Supervisor Kathryn Barger cast the lone vote against putting the measure on the ballot, saying she was concerned about the burden on property owners, particularly in light of a potential future parcel tax to fund a structural deficit in the fire department, and potential upward pressure on rental rates.
Barger said complying with federal laws that carry hundreds of millions of dollars in potential penalties is one thing, but argued that the measure goes above and beyond what is required.
“The proposed initiative far exceeds the requirements of the MS4 permit which governs pollutant levels in local waterways,” Barger said. “The permit is based on assumptions that are antiquated and require updating before we go to the taxpayers for more money.”
The county has been out of compliance for years with federal requirements, though it has largely avoided fines through good-faith efforts to solve the problem.
Those efforts were not enough for the Natural Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper, which sued the county in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 and ultimately held the county responsible for cleaning up the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.
Untreated stormwater and urban runoff into the region’s two main waterways have resulted in excessive levels of aluminum, copper, cyanide, zinc and fecal bacteria. Those rivers drain into Santa Monica Bay and the Pacific Ocean, leaving areas near storm drains closed to swimmers and surfers after heavy rains.
If passed, the tax would be allocated 50 percent to watershed agencies for regional water projects, 40 percent to cities for local priority projects and 10 percent to the county flood control district for educational programs and administration.
Ultimately, the matter will be up to voters.
Luce told City News Service she believes residents are more inclined than ever to support the plan to fund projects which would create more vegetation in place of concrete, offsetting climate change.
“I think people are worried about water,” Luce said.
Pestrella agreed, saying polling by an outside consultant showed a “highly aware electorate” leaning in favor of the measure.
“This is a historic opportunity to modernize L.A. County’s water infrastructure to meet the needs of the 21st century,” Pestrella said. “The flood protection system designed and built in the 1940s and ’50s has done an outstanding job managing flood risk within the L.A. Basin. But it was never designed to handle the tremendous population growth and urbanization that has contributed to the volume of pollutants we see in our waterways today.”