LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Tuesday postponed action on a storm water cleanup fee after an overwhelming majority of speakers representing cities, school districts, businesses and property owners expressed opposition to the measure and the way it was presented.
The Supervisors voted 3-2 to redraft the measure to include a sunset clause, a list of projects and the possibility of placing it on a general ballot before the entire electorate, instead of only property owners in a mail-in ballot.
Taxpayers can continue commenting on the proposed measure for another 60 days. The next hearing before the supervisors is tentatively slated for March 12. So far, the county received 96,349 written protests, about 4.3 percent. It needed 50 percent or more to stop the process.
Supervisor Don Knabe, who represents the beaches, southeast county and Puente Hills communities, said too many property owners were not aware of the measure due to a flawed, $3 million county process that consisted of mailing a single notice to the owners of 2.2 million properties. Because many overlooked the notice and some didn't receive it - including Azusa Pacific University - Knabe wanted more time for public comment.
"We mailed a very important protest hearing notice that looked like junk mail to the public during the busiest mail season of the year, and we are still being told that many never received a notice or that it was inadvertently thrown away," Knabe said.
Even Supervisor Gloria Molina said she tossed the notice from the county Department of Public Works mailed to her home sometime after Nov. 30 because she thought it was junk mail.
"I am troubled by so many aspects of this. There are too many untied issues," Molina said. "I don't know what will clean the water."
As drafted, the proposal would assess single-family homes about $54 a year, while big box stores would pay $11,000. The measure would raise about $295 million from homes, commercial properties, schools, churches and other nonprofits normally exempt from taxes. The money would be divvied up by regional groups, cities and the county and used to build storm water treatment plants and new parks with permeable surfaces so water can be returned to the ground.
The county is spearheading the effort to help cities and unincorporated county communities on the hook for treating urban runoff by state and federal regulators. Storm water in an urban region such as Los Angeles County picks up chemicals from lawns, metals and toxins from roadways and bacteria from animal waste that contaminates inland lakes, the San Gabriel, Rio Hondo and Los Angeles rivers, as well as the ocean. More than 1.8 million cases a year of gastroenteritis, as well as pink eye and sore throats, are attributed to runoff that reaches the ocean.
About 200 speakers testified before the board during a four and a half hour public hearing Tuesday required by Proposition 218. Opposition came from a wide swath of county taxpayers, from senior citizens, homeowners, school districts, nonprofits, small businesses and corporations.
"Property owners can't afford to clean up everyone's garbage," said Inez Mogul, whose comment summed up the opposition from dozens of irate property owners who were among the 800 people in attendance at the board meeting room and an overflow room at the Hall of Administration in the civic center.
Many jeered those who supported the measure and applauded the testimony of someone against the tax measure.
Joining the string of property owners opposed to a new tax on their land were school districts who said any new assessment would take away money from the classrooms and could result in more teacher and staff layoffs.
"You can tax me. But please don't tax our schools," Alhambra Unified School District Board Trustee Adele Andrade-Stadler told the board.
Those in opposition included Los Angeles Unified, El Monte Union High School District, Hacienda La Puente Unified School District and nearly every district in the Whittier area. Arcadia Unified School District Superintendent Joel Shawn asked the board to delay any tax vote for a year, so schools can get back on their feet financially. Cities opposed included Santa Clarita, Burbank, Rosemead and Bell. The cities of Los Angeles, Malibu, Long Beach and Signal Hill joined many environmental organizations in support of the measure.
Environmental groups in support included Heal the Bay, Surfriders Association, Amigos de los Rios, Trust for Public Land and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. A handful of parents and property owners told the board they supported the measure as a good way to ensure cleaner, safer beaches.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the county was not solely responsible for polluting the rivers and beaches, rejecting arguments from environmental groups who said the county should pay because it transports billions of gallons of polluted storm water along county rivers and concrete channels. However, the county sees the new fee as abiding by the high court ruling and says the Clean Water, Clean Beaches measure will help get the job done and share the cost with the county's 88 cities.
"This measure is designed to provide this regional approach," said Angela George, principal engineer with the County Department of Public Works. "It is the collective responsibility of all municipalities to improve storm water quality."
As Molina pointed out during the testimony of an elected official from the city of Bell, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board - a state agency - can begin assessing fines on cities for not taking action.
"The state is mandating this. The cities will be fined by the state if somebody doesn't do this," Molina said.
Monrovia Mayor Mary Ann Lutz, who sits on the Regional Board, said she was concerned about the lack of outreach from the county to local school districts. "Schools don't see it as a benefit. They see it as money being taken away from education," she said.
Lutz said there were questions about the formula for calculating assessments on schools and on those who have taken steps to limit runoff.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said he wanted to see a re-draft that included more equitable ways to address property owners with cisterns and rain barrels or permeable driveways, etc.
He called the measure "not ready for prime time" and voted with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Knabe to bring it back in 60 days with amendments.
Supervisor Michael Antonovich's motion to kill the measure failed.