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Supervisors Vote to Rework Clean Water Tax Measure

County Board of Supervisors opts to revise plan to charge property owners a fee for cleaning waterways. Cities, business and school districts including Long Beach Unified testifed against it.

The idea of charging Los Angeles County property owners a fee to fund the cleanup of local waterways met with enough opposition Tuesday that the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to rework it.

"What is clear is that this is not ready for prime time," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a champion of the proposal.

Nearly 200 people turned up at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration for the public hearing on the proposed Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure. The majority, including Long Beach Unified School District, spoke in opposition.

Many of the opponents, including Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents Long Beach and much of the Southbay, objected to how the measure was introduced to the public.

Those in favor hailed the plan as a cost-effective way to reduce urban runoff—including trash and toxic substances like industrial solvents, lead, mercury and infection-causing bacteria—into county waterways and the ocean.

"This measure is the most important water quality, water supply and flood control measure that the region has ever seen," said Mark Gold, associate director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and former president of the nonprofit Heal the Bay.

But those against the proposal characterized the fee as a tax that many could ill afford, argued that the measure offered little detail on how the money would be spent and said it duplicated other existing taxes and fees.

"God sends us rain and you figured out how to tax it," said Santa Clarita City Councilman TimBen Boydston.

The ordinance, if passed, would raise more than $200 million annually. A typical single-family homeowner would pay about $54 on average, according to Phil Doudar, project manager for the initiative. About 90 percent of parcel owners would likely pay less than $100, he estimated, though large commercial property owners could be charged thousands of dollars.

Elected officials spoke out on both sides of the issue.

Malibu Mayor Lou La Monte said his city has invested more than $60 million—almost half its annual budget over the last six years—to clean up runoff before it flows into the ocean.

"The Los Angeles County Flood Control District has worked collaboratively with municipalities and other stakeholders, who drafted an initiative that will charge a fair and reasonable service fee for cleaning up the polluted storm water that comes from every corner of this 4,000-square-mile county," La Monte said.

Burbank officials disagreed.

"We are committed to environmental stewardship," said Burbank Vice Mayor Emily Gabel-Luddy, "However, we, the city of Burbank, remain opposed to this for a number of reasons," including because, she argued it would divert tens of thousands of dollars from public education.

Representatives of many school districts asked Tuesday for an exemption for schools, saying the measure would otherwise result in cuts to already decimated education budgets.

"The Long Beach Unified School District will lose more than $700,000 and have to make even deeper cuts," said Jim Novak, chief business and financial officer for that district.

Businesses—including those in aviation, real estate, construction and metals manufacturing—also raised concerns, some saying they are already paying to comply with environmental regulations they view as redundant.

Even some environmental agencies, largely in favor of the measure, called for changes before it goes to a vote.

Some residents argued that the mailing advising them of the proposed fee looked deceptively like junk mail and that the county was making it difficult to register their opposition. Others asked that the matter be put to a vote during an upcoming general election, rather than a mail-in vote by property owners, as originally planned.

The South Bay Association of Chambers of Commerce came out against the fee in December, saying that the county was trying to raise taxes without the benefit of a "full public dialogue."

"it appears to SBACC that the county was hoping that the protest ballots would get overlooked by property owners during the busy holiday season—the county should be engaging property owners not hiding from them," said SBACC chairwoman Patricia Donaldson in a statement.

More than 50 percent of property owners had to oppose the measure in writing in order to avoid a ballot on the proposed fee. Only about 4.3 percent had submitted an objection prior to the start of today's meeting, according to the Department of Public Works.

But the concerns raised were significant enough that Supervisor Don Knabe—who represents much of the South Bay and Long Beach—asked that the protest process be continued for another 60 days. He also recommended that county staffers consider a way to allow protests to be filed by email or online, a process for putting the initiative on a general election ballot, a sunset date for the measure, a specific list of projects to be funded, alternative funding sources and a way to address concerns of property owners already capturing and treating storm water.

The board's vote was 3-2 in favor of Knabe's motion, with Supervisors Gloria Molina and Antonovich dissenting.

Antonovich suggested instead that the clean water measure be eliminated entirely, which was voted down 2-3, with only Knabe adding his support.

A report is expected March 12.

—Editor Nicole Mooradian contributed to this report.

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