County Abandons ‘Clean Water, Clean Beaches’ Measure For Now

By Elizabeth Marcellino, City News Service

A plan to charge Los Angeles County property owners a fee to fund the cleanup of regional waterways was abandoned Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors, at least temporarily.

Nearly two months ago, the board acknowledged that the plan needed to be reworked, and Supervisor Michael Antonovich spoke out against what he characterized as a tax.

Supervisors Gloria Molina and Don Knabe – swayed by the number of protests against the plan since then – subsequently introduced a formal recommendation against instituting the measure “at this time.”

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky championed the “Clean Water, Clean Beaches” measure as a cost-effective way to reduce urban runoff – including trash and toxic substances such as industrial solvents, lead, mercury and infection- causing bacteria – into county waterways and the ocean. It was the result of years of work to reach consensus among dozens of municipalities and environmental organizations.

But Yaroslavsky seemed resigned Tuesday to taking a step back. He recommended that county staffers draft a 2014 ballot measure asking voters to fund projects to address stormwater and urban runoff pollution, adding to the Molina-Knabe motion. He then voted along with the rest of the board to table the Clean Water measure.

Elected officials, school district representatives and residents spoke out against more fees at a time when many property owners are already struggling economically. Fees for a typical homeowner would average $54 annually, while large commercial property owners could pay thousands of dollars, according to the Department of Public Works.

The county’s cost of complying with federal clean water regulations was more than $350 million in 2012, according to Yaroslavsky.

Santa Clarita City Councilman TimBen Boydston, who called the fee “a tax on rain,” mocked it by suggesting “perhaps a tax on sunshine … or a tax on air.”

Carol Horton, of the Citrus Community College District in the San Gabriel Valley, said it would have to pay “a staggering $42,937” under the measure. She and others argued that school districts should be exempted from the fee, which was intended to raise about $200 million annually.

Opponents also argued that the measure lacked detail on the projects to be funded and contended the ballot process was designed to push the measure through without scrutiny, while environmentalists and other elected officials hailed the measure as critical to supporting local cleanup efforts and weaning the county off its expensive, imported water supply.

“We urge you to move forward with your historic effort to fund clean water and fund clean beaches and let the voters decide,” said Fran Diamond, emeritus chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“Stormwater runoff is the leading cause of surface water pollution in the region,” said Noah Garrison, a lawyer for the National Resources Defense Council. “It sickens hundreds of thousands to millions of swimmers at our beaches.”

Some city officials, like those from Santa Clarita, argued that the measure duplicates local cleanup programs, while others, including the mayor of Inglewood, said regional support was critical to paying for expensive local cleanup.

Molina said she was initially surprised by the opposition of some city officials, saying she told those in her district that “you’re going to get fined, you’re going to get sanctioned” for not complying with federal regulations. But other concerns they raised, including questions about how the money would be spent, convinced her that the measure needed more work.

A spokesman for City Councilman Paul Koretz asked the board “not to kick it down the road.

As proposed, more than 50 percent of property owners would have had to protest the fee in order to avoid a ballot survey of owners to decide the measure’s fate. As of this morning, 113,422 property owners, just over 5 percent of the total, had filed a valid objection, according to the board’s executive officer.

Nevertheless, the board voted 4-1 not to move forward. Instead, county staffers were directed to work with schools, businesses and nonprofit organizations to try and address their concerns, and to educate the public about stormwater pollution.

County lawyers were asked to draft a ballot measure seeking voter support for an alternate funding mechanism, aiming for a 2014 election.

Antonovich cast the dissenting vote. Though he opposed the Clean Water measure, he objected to the language about drafting a new measure, saying the state, not voters, should be responsible for cleaning up the county’s waterways.

Yaroslavsky worried about the challenges ahead.

“It will take four votes to put this on the ballot,” Yaroslavsky said. “That will be a steep mountain to climb.”

The board asked staffers to report back in 90 days.

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March 14, 2013  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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