Homeowners in the Malibu sewer assessment district will probably be taxed until the year 2009 to pay for a waste water project the county now plans to abandon as part of its truce with the new city, Los Angeles County officials said last week.
"The new assessment will be about $3,800 instead of the current $13,000," said Harry Stone, deputy director of the county Public Works Department.
The county has advised the Malibu City Council that homeowners in the district will be charged at least $225 a year to cover the $11.3 million the county has spent trying to build the controversial sewer. In a letter to the council, attorney Judith Fries of the county counsel's office said the $225 figure "is only an estimate, and the final amount could be either higher or lower."
Homeowners in Malibu Country Estates, a subdivision next to Pepperdine University that is served by the Malibu Mesa waste water plant, would pay more than other property owners because of county improvements in that facility over the past three years. However, all 2,000 homeowners in the assessment district will share in the $1.1-million cost of the upgrade.
Fries said the continuing taxes will be needed to pay down bonds, sold in 1989 to finance the plan.
"The plan now is to retire some of the bonds and use homeowner assessments to pay down principal and interest to the remaining bondholders through the year 2009," she explained.
Money from the sale of the $34-million issue has been used to pay engineers, lawyers, public relations experts, and county departments and to reimburse the county general fund for the cost of the sewer.
The 2,000 homeowners in the district have been assessed $13,000 each to repay the bonds; most are paying the bill over 20 years, with interest, as part of their property taxes.
Fries could not estimate the reduced amount that owners of commercial property might pay over the next 17 years, though Stone said the original assessments on commercial properties range from "$5,000 to about $3 million for Pepperdine University."
Malibu City Atty. Michael Jenkins said that the council is willing to negotiate with the county over the question of continuing assessments but that the city "is troubled by the proposal that the community pay for studies, litigation and other costs which have questionable relevance to the project."
Mayor Walt Keller was more blunt. Referring to a recent Malibu Township Council audit detailing county sewer expenditures, he said, "If the audit is true, then we shouldn't be paying for lawyers and public relations firms hired by the county to fight cityhood."
The county's insistence on developing a regional sewer system for Malibu, despite residents' objections on the grounds that it would invite development, was the main impetus for the cityhood movement.
According to the township council audit, the county used at least $440,000 of the bond proceeds to pay a law firm and public relations experts to fight the Malibu incorporation effort. A second law firm was paid $690,000 to advise the county on the bond issue and to defend it against lawsuits meant to stop the sewer project.
Gina Cataldo, a plaintiff in one of the anti-sewer suits, objected to the prospect of more taxes.
"This doesn't seem right to me," she said. "There was no reason for any assessment at all because, in the beginning, the county needed only $2.8 million for the project's design and cost analysis. I think the bond issue was contrived to create a cash stream for the county, so the county should assume all the costs."
Cataldo's tax on her five acres in the Civic Center area is $307,000, although she says, "I've been trying for five years to get the county to explain how this assessment was set."
No meeting date has been set to negotiate the county proposal, but Stone said it will probably happen "within the next 30 days."