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City Won’t Raise Taxes for Landscape Maintenance Services : Thousand Oaks: Public works director says he would likely cut back on watering and stop replacing dried-up plants.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousand Oaks will still boast shaded streets and plush lawns, but the landscaping may start looking shabbier this summer as city gardeners cope with budget cuts by trimming services.

When a majority of City Council members Tuesday refused to raise landscape maintenance taxes by $10 a year, Public Works Director Donald Nelson said he would likely cut back on watering and stop replacing dried-up plants.

Nelson also warned that he may have to end the city’s traditional practice of planting sturdy shrubs, perky flowers or grass along the perimeters of housing tracts.

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But he promised to juggle resources to protect as much as possible the city’s hefty botanical inventory--10.5 million square feet of landscaping, enough to cover The Oaks mall and parking lot 240 times.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to drive down the street and say ‘Oh my God,’ ” Nelson said. “We’re going to protect the investment we have as much as possible.”

More than 11,000 parcels, primarily newer tracts in Westlake Village, belong to the landscape maintenance assessment district. Gardening on city property outside the district is paid for through Thousand Oaks’ general fund.

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After much haggling with council members in recent months, Nelson on Tuesday asked for an 8% hike in landscape taxes within the district to cover surging water and electricity costs. The increase would have bumped up the annual levy to $139.01 a parcel.

Denying the fee hike would “result in insufficient monies available to maintain landscaping at current standards,” Nelson wrote in a report to the council. He noted that the public works department has lost 10 landscape employees in the past two years, and said watering schedules have been pared to a bare minimum.

But Councilman Frank Schillo said he would be willing to tolerate a little less tending to avoid raising assessments. “People can’t bear more taxes,” he said.

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Councilwomen Elois Zeanah and Jaime Zukowski joined Schillo, a candidate for the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, in shooting down the tax increase.

Their votes overrode the concerns of Mayor Alex Fiore and Councilwoman Judy Lazar, who argued that cutbacks could prove expensive, both in terms of dollars and civic pride.

Replacing unwatered, untended landscaping would cost a lot more than keeping it in shape in the first place, they said.

“While an 8% increase is not something I’m dying to see, (rejecting it) would seriously impact the level of landscaping in this community, which is one of the things we’re proud of,” Lazar said.

During the Tuesday night debate, several council members criticized the whole concept of a landscape assessment district, which bills only certain property owners for the upkeep of city lands.

Theoretically, the residents who live closest to the greenbelts pay for landscaping because they enjoy the most benefit. Every property owner within the assessment district pays the same annual fee, whether they own one-sixth of an acre or a huge undeveloped tract.

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“There seems to be some inequities in the tax system here,” resident Ed Greenwood complained, urging the city to reform the system.

Because everyone in the city derives some benefit from the tidy medians and blooming plants, council members said they would look at imposing a citywide tax to take care of all gardening bills. The new fee could be levied on a sliding scale, they said, with payments based on lot sizes or proximity to expensive landscaping.

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Council members also directed city staff to consider revising the policy of annexing undeveloped parcels to the district.

Although the city routinely accepts responsibility for gardening along the edges of future housing tracts, staff does not bill property owners until houses are built and sold. Thus, the city tends half a million square feet of landscaping in the Lang Ranch and Rancho Conejo tracts without receiving a penny of revenue, Nelson said.

“I don’t understand how you can plan to do more landscaping when you know you won’t have the money,” resident Lowell Burk told the council. “I really don’t understand.”

City staff will look into the issue, Nelson said, and present the council with reform options next year.

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