Serious About Stormwater

Mail-in ballots may determine hike in stormwater fees

Mail-in ballots may determine hike in stormwater fees

I’ve spent three years talking to the L.A  Department of Public Works and Mayor’s Office staff about the glaring need for sustainable funding for the city’s efforts to curb stormwater pollution. After all, the city has long been in violation of the summer beach bacteria regulatory requirements and looming regulatory deadlines exist for winter beach bacteria, nutrients and toxins in Machado Lake and Echo Park Lake and metals in the L.A. River and Ballona Creek.

In addition, there is no operation and maintenance funding for the $500 million in Proposition O stormwater cleanup projects that are currently under design and construction. Yet funding for stormwater programs is already $30 million a year upside down due to tougher stormwater regulations and a pollution abatement charge that hasn’t gone up in 16 years.

The good news is that the Department of Public Works approved a plan to clean up the city’s chronically polluted beaches, rivers and lakes. It also urged the council to increase the stormwater fees. Both of these are long overdue actions.

However, the issue has gotten complicated and controversial in the last few days.

Public Works approved a fee increase and a schedule to bring the vote to L.A.’s property owners. For the fee to be enacted, 50% plus one of property  owners must agree to it. The vote occurs over a 45-day period and the city wanted to hold the election before the County Assessor deadline of Aug. 10. If the city doesn’t have approval by that date, then it wouldn’t receive increased stormwater funds by January 2010.

Passing a fee increase is difficult under typical circumstances, but passing an increase in this dire economy leaves no margin for error. The effort to move the stormwater fee increase to the ballot got complicated when the City Attorney’s office figured out that property owners were entitled to an additional 45-day notice and hearing before the beginning of the voting period.

You do the math. 45 days for the vote preceded by 45 days for notice adds up to at least 90 days, and April is nearly over and Aug. 10 is right on the horizon. City leaders felt they had no chance to expedite the process. On Friday, the council held a special joint finance and environmental committee meeting that lasted nearly two hours. Members began to understand the need for the fee increase because of L.A.’s severe water quality problems, but they were not convinced that property owners would OK the proposed package (phased $76 increase over five years with no new polling and an expedited time frame). As a result, the committees forwarded the proposal to the full council for a vote this Tuesday.

Bottom line: The council and the Mayor’s Office have to be on the same page for this difficult vote.

Already, the Jarvis anti-tax folks have unfairly labeled the stormwater fee increase as another Measure B, despite the clear environmental need and economic justification for a fee increase. In addition, the fee increase discussion has been part of the water-quality plan development process, which has unfolded for the last two years and involved well over 100 stakeholders. There is no question about the transparency on the need and use of these funds.

This week, the Mayor’s Office and the City Council need to get together and refine the fee increase package and they need to discuss how it will pass in this economic climate. Prop O passed with over 76% of the vote because Council President Eric Garcetti, Councilwoman Jan Perry, the environmental engineering community and the broader environmental movement got together to run a great campaign. None of that is in place yet.

L.A. is in a critical place in its environmental history.  We are at a Hyperion moment once again and the voters are needed again to provide the resources to clean up Santa Monica Bay, the L.A. River, Ballona Creek and local lakes. These funds also will lead to new, green stormwater infrastructure that will reduce pollution, augment local groundwater supplies and reduce flood risk.

Without these funds, the public health of swimmers and surfers will remain at risk and the aquatic environment will remain degraded. Also, the city’s violations of water quality requirements will continue to grow along with its liability under the Clean Water Act. A lot is at stake. The city has to pass the measure and supporters will need the mayor, council and widespread education to make it happen. This week will let us know if the city has the plan to pull it off.

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