The Southern California News Group (SCNG) recently published my article about upcoming legislation SB 231 which aims to limit LA County resident’s right to vote on property tax increases. To learn more, you can read my OpEd below:
by Judy Nelson
Los Angeles County residents should be aware of stormwater regulations that could dramatically increase our property tax bills. Proposed legislation in Sacramento known as SB231, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Robert Hertzberg of the San Fernando Valley, would allow stormwater-control costs to be added to property assessments without a direct vote of the people.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted groundbreaking stormwater-management regulations affecting all cities in the region. Our county is the test site for the rest of the state and the country.
The mandate, called an MS4 permit, requires that cities capture 85 percent of the water from the first 24 hours of a storm. All water that flows out of the city via storm drains must first be monitored and treated for over 30 pollutants.
Those of us in government for local cities support the ideal of conserving water and preventing pollution from reaching the ocean. But the costs of implementing the systems are daunting, as this is a mandate without a funding source.
The big question for cities is “Where will the $20 billion to pay for the stormwater regulations come from?”
In order to reach compliance, most cities must install porous streets, large retention basins and complex monitoring/treatment systems. Initial cost estimates are $20 billion and rising, with maintenance costs in perpetuity. The majority of cities do not have the funds, but risk fines and lawsuits if they cannot comply.
In the San Gabriel Valley, cities already capture, infiltrate and reuse 95 percent of stormwater runoff in regional settlement basins. We question the value of building new infrastructure within each of our cities rather than continuing to use the shared infrastructure that is already in place and working reliably and efficiently.
In order to pay for the costs of this county-wide stormwater mandate, some are saying that a stormwater assessment should be added to property tax bills. If this is implemented in Glendora, where I am a council member, the average assessment is estimated at $1,400 per parcel annually. Residents, businesses, churches, schools and hospitals would all be impacted.
Twenty years ago, the people of California passed Proposition 218, which guarantees citizens the right to vote on increases to taxes, fees and assessments, barring three exceptions: trash, household water and sewage. Stormwater control has never been included as one of the three exceptions and, at this time, requires a two-thirds majority vote of the people to pass. It is debatable whether citizens would vote to support a large stormwater tax at the ballot box.
SB231 is moving forward in Sacramento, with a vote expected later this spring. It expands the definition of sewer service to encompass stormwater-management costs. Stormwater would then be included as one of the three exemptions allowed to bypass standard voting requirements under Prop. 218. If passed, it would allow property assessments for stormwater to be implemented after a city or county conducts what is called a “protest vote.”
Protest votes differ from standard voting procedure in that they are not held on election day. Instead, municipalities mail a letter to property owners after a public hearing, notifying them of the intent to increase property assessments. One vote is allowed per property and 51 percent of the ballots must be mailed back with a “no” by a specific deadline or the tax automatically goes into effect. Often, citizens are not expecting the letter and a majority are not returned on time.
I strongly believe SB231 violates the intent of Prop. 218. If legislators want residents to pay for stormwater management, the tax should be placed on the standard election ballot to allow for a direct vote of the people.
If you have concerns about SB231, contact your local City Council representatives, your state legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown. In the event that SB231 is passed, ask your councilmembers if they will be implementing it in your city, and ask when the protest ballot is scheduled to arrive in your mailbox.
Judy Nelson is a member of the Glendora City Council.