Possible backdoor to county clean water fees

California Water Boards

A proposed fee on property owners in Los Angeles County may be less of a burden than originally thought on those who have already put measures in place to minimize stormwater runoff on their properties, a county official said.

The measure — called Clean Water, Clean Beaches — would raise money by adding another fee to property tax bills for projects designed to reduce the amount of dirty water that drains off of properties and into streams, rivers and the ocean during storms.

That amounts to almost $17.5 million to improve water quality and help cities meet strict pollution regulations recently approved by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Municipalities and other major property owners, like school districts, have protested the fee, saying that it would put an extra burden on their already-strained budgets at a bad time.

That cost may be lessened under a new amendment that provides an out for property owners that have already worked to decrease stormwater runoff, said Kerjon Lee, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works.

The rebates or incentives would be dealt with by watershed area groups, administrative bodies created under the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure, Lee said.

Those groups would have the ability to adopt incentive plans themselves. It would only lessen the amount of money that goes to the watershed area groups, as half of the revenue from the fee will stay in the groups’ control.

Another 40 percent of the fee stays with the city in which the parcels are located, and the remaining 10 percent would go to the Los Angeles County Flood Control District for administrative purposes.

Most homeowners would pay $54 per year or less, according to the county. Santa Monica nonprofit Heal the Bay states that 75 percent of commercial properties would pay less than $420 per year.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District may have to cough up almost the same amount, at $180,000. Schools across the county will pay as much as $14 million total in fees.

Even with new money coming to schools as a result of Proposition 30, a tax measure passed in November 2012 to help stem a tide of cuts to California’s public schools, funds are still tight, said Sandra Lyon, superintendent of the SMMUSD.

“It’s untenable to ask school districts to take another hit to already-strapped budgets,” she told the Board of Education earlier this month.

Locally, the fee is a political liability.

The Board of Education signaled its opposition in early February, but the City Council has not taken a position on it.

That could be difficult in a town that has already levied two parcel taxes specifically for stormwater cleanup that raise roughly $4 million per year, although even Santa Monica will struggle to meet the new environmental standards imposed.

On the one hand, a region-wide fee is necessary to raise the money needed to pay for improvements to meet new pollution standards, Kubani said.

On the other, the cost of improvements needed is in the billions, and the fee “pales in comparison” to the amount of money that would accomplish the task of cleaning up Los Angeles County’s runoff.

“It certainly is a necessary thing to raise money region-wide to address urban runoff pollution,” Kubani said. “I personally hope that this, or something like it, goes through, because there’s great need out there.”