Clean water parcel tax up for vote at county

Los Angeles Waterworks

Unless 1.3 million property owners send protest letters to Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors by Tuesday, a measure to charge landowners an annual “clean water fee” will be put to a mail-in vote beginning in March. 

The Board of Supervisors will vote at its Tuesday meeting in downtown Los Angeles whether to set an election to charge landowners the fee. The typical residential fee would be $54 a year, the typical condo fee about $20, and about $11,000 for a big box retailer. 

The fee was proposed by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District and would charge all properties an annual fee to fund the cleanup of stormwater runoff. The charge would appear on county property tax statements beginning with the 2013-2014 tax roll. 

The idea for the fee, or the “Clean Water, Clean Beaches Measure,” came about when stricter standards for stormwater runoff were imposed on the county by the state and federal governments, in particular those passed by the Los Angeles County Regional Water Quality Control Board in November placing limits on 33 pollutants. The Water Board is also requiring 88 cities in the county, including Malibu, to present them with proposed storm water clean-up projects within the next 18 months. 

County officials estimate potential revenue of $275 million a year if the measure passes. All parcels will pay a fee, including public schools and parks, commercial properties and trailer parks. Fees are based on property size and development rather than value. 

Janece Maez, the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District’s Assistant Superintendent and CFO, wrote in an email that the district has been following the “Clean Water, Clean Beaches Measure” very closely. 

“The District has not taken a formal position on the Measure to date,” Maez wrote. “If it passes as originally proposed, it is our understanding the fee could be in excess of $180,000 for the entire district. I do not have a breakdown by individual school site. It is our intent to attend the hearing scheduled on January 15.” 

Zev Yaroslavsky, Malibu’s representative on the county Board of Supervisors, supports the fee and has said previously that it’s “critically important” for the county to address the stormwater issue on its own terms. “If we don’t do this … we will have this imposed on us by a court, by a regulatory agency or by both.” 

Joel Bellman, Yaroslavsky’s press deputy, expanded on the supervisor’s outlook. 

“He feels this is a fair and viable way to do it,” Bellman said. “The benefits will more than offset the costs. It’s an investment in the health and environment of the region.” 

Engineering studies commissioned by the Flood District and other agencies estimate that the cost of compliance with the new water standards could run into billions of dollars over the next couple of decades. 

Stormwater pollution continues to be a problem on county beaches. On Heal the Bay’s 2011-2012 Annual Beach Report Card, seven out of 10 beaches in the state “Beach Bummer” list were in Los Angeles County, with four located in Malibu. Heal the Bay’s website states that they “strongly support” the proposed fee.

Without passage of this measure, supporters of the new regulations amount to what they call an unfunded mandate, with no dedicated revenue stream to help pay for the expenses of cleaning up the toxic soup that flows into the oceans through the stormwater systems after every rainstorm, carr ying bacteria, tire and car residues, heavy metals, oil, dog feces, pesticides, lawn fertilizers and all kinds of other trash and pollutants. 

Under the measure, Malibu and other cities would get back 40 percent of the fees paid by its property owners to the county in order to spend on local water quality projects, which could include street sweeping to capture trash, maintaining storm drains and filters, diverting stormwater into existing sewage systems and repaving parking lots with permeable materials. 

Half of the funds would go to nine county watershed authority groups for regional water quality projects. The remaining 10 percent of funds would go to the County Flood Control District for testing and monitoring. 

Although the county will be working with cities on ways to clean up stormwater before it enters the ocean, they also have plans that call for diverting as much of it as possible into underground aquifers and cisterns where it could be used to supplement local water supplies. 

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit by environmental groups National Resources Defense Council and Santa Monica Baykeeper against the county Flood Control District for violating its water permit by exceeding pollution standards. The decision, which took a narrow reading of the case, reversed a lower-court ruling, which would have put a larger regulatory burden on the county to control pollution discharges. 

Bellman said Tuesday in an email that the Flood Control District’s proposed fee is “not directly related” to the NRDC/ Baykeeper lawsuit. 

“The clean water/clean beaches fee is not a response to this NRDC lawsuit, but to a longstanding Board directive to undertake regional leadership in minimizing polluted stormwater discharge into the ocean,” Bellman wrote. “We have engaged in many different efforts over the years toward this end, and this has been developed as a comprehensive, planned region-wide approach that was devised to be as fair as possible.”