By Gary Walker
Two Los Angeles County supervisors whose districts have coasts are on different sides of a debate that could result in a referendum at the ballot box or a special election this spring.
Their disparate outlooks are on a proposal to charge property owners in the county an assessment of approximately $54 annually for storm water runoff cleanup. Those who own multiple parcels would likely pay more.
Third District Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky favors a fee on parcel owners through a special election. “I do support the measure in concept,” he told The Argonaut.
The tax measure will raise approximately $290 million, county officials say.
Fourth District Supervisor Don Knabe thinks the way that the process is being handled by county officials is less than transparent.
“I am here to tell you that I strongly oppose this measure and believe that the way the process is being managed is a sneaky attempt to get it passed,” the supervisor wrote recently on his county blog.
The county spent approximately $100 million on cleanup efforts in 2012.
Opponents of the clean water initiative say the notices the county mailed to landlords and property owners were confusing to some of them.
“It was sent out during the holidays and to a lot of people it looked like junk mail,” said Knabe, whose district includes Marina del Rey. “We’re finding that a lot of people threw them away.”
Yaroslavsky, whose district includes Venice and Santa Monica, said the notices, which included a protest form as well as a notice of a public hearing, spelled out what the county is proposing and why. “It’s an assessment and legally it’s different (than a parcel tax),” he said.
Knabe acknowledged that the special election provision is lawful, but he disagrees with the provision that property owners are entirely responsible for paying for the assessment.
“While this process is in line with the letter of the law, it is not in the spirit of the law,” he said. “I see this as an underhanded attempt to pass this initiative and am strongly against this taxpayer rip-off.”
Organizations such as Santa Monica-based Heal the Bay are backing the Clean Water, Clean Beaches initiative. They say it has the potential to drastically improve the water quality not only at local beaches but throughout the region.
“Storm water runoff is the number-one source of coastal pollution in Los Angeles County,” said Kirsten James, water quality director at Heal the Bay.
Yaroslavsky echoed James’ statements on storm water pollution and how it impacts not only coastal areas but also other regions of the county. “It continues to be a big problem for our region and it comes from inland cities as well as cities along the coasts,” he noted.
Knabe joined with then-Assemblyman and now state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey) to create a more stringent system of reporting spills that reached the ocean and caused beach closures in 2007 and says he has always supported efforts to combat water pollution.
“I’m not against clean water. This is about being fair to those who would be paying for the tax,” he said.
Entities such as the Los Angeles Unified School District would pay more than many property owners due to the number of parcels that it owns.
Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for the county Department of Public Works, said his agency has been working with various school districts within the county since last year to advise them of the benefits of having a fund to offset the costs of cleaning up storm water pollution.
“This has been a project that we have been looking at for about 10 years,” Lee explained. “The county has asked us to develop and recommend a sustainable revenue source that would address storm water pollution on a local as well as a regional basis.”
Yaroslavsky pointed out that there is a federal lawsuit against the county that alleges it violated the conditions of its storm water permit and unless changes are made, the lawsuit could force them to takes steps that will be more costly.
“Either we’re going to do something on our own or we’re going to have a federal court impose it on us,” he warned.
On Jan. 9, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the county’s favor in the case brought by Los Angles Waterkeeper, formerly Santa Monica Baykeeper.
James said taking the regional approach is the most sensible long-term as opposed to a city-by-city plan. “This measure focuses on the county as a whole,” she noted. “Water flow does not have boundaries.”
In addition, money from the property tax assessment could be used for local water-saving programs as well as creating regional watershed authorities, James added.
The Board of Supervisors will soon be considering a vote to move ahead with its parcel tax unless a majority of property owners contest it through written protests. Otherwise, the election would likely be conducted exclusively by mail.
“I will not support the item if it is a special election by mail and only for property owners,” Knabe asserted.
He favors a ballot referendum instead of the special election through the mail, in which case a majority would be necessary to approve the tax. If it is a ballot initiative, a two-thirds vote would be required before the measure becomes law.
“If there is no majority protest, then I will again push for a regular ballot on an election day,” said Knabe.
James said those who are concerned about the financial costs should view the property tax assessment from another vantage point.
“I think they should think a little more broadly about the economic consequences of not passing this measure,” she countered. “Storm water runoff affects our local beaches and our local economy relies on tourism, and our coasts are a big part of that.”
Knabe said voters should be aware that the tax is not temporary. “This is not a one-time hit….this is forever,” he said.
The Fourth District supervisor said his main concern at the hearing will be that everyone is aware of what they will be voting for and the benefits or consequences of that vote.
“If everybody understands what it is they’re voting for and they still want it, then let them vote for it,” he said. “That’s the way democracy works.”
Yaroslavsky countered the argument about allowing the initiative to be a ballot measure as opposed to a special election with another point of view. “If you’re a property owner, why would you want others who won’t be taxed to vote on something that you would pay for (as would occur with a parcel tax)?” he asked.
Officials from LAUSD did not respond to inquiries on the Clean Water, Clean Beaches proposal. Knabe said the Long Beach Unified School District opposes the proposal.
The Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing to consider the next step for Clean Water, Clean Beaches Jan. 15 in downtown Los Angeles.