CALABASAS : Water Tax Weighed to Maintain Facilities

The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District is considering levying a tax on land parcels to help pay for the upkeep of its drinking-water delivery facilities.

The levy would cost the average family about 85 cents a month, district officials said. It would raise as much as $500,000 a year.

The charge would be included in the next tax bill, which is due in November, district officials said. About 30,000 property owners would be affected.

A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled at 7 p.m. Monday at Agoura High School, 28545 W. Driver Ave., Agoura Hills. The district's board of directors will take an initial vote on the proposal Tuesday, and another on June 27.

District officials say revenues have dropped sharply over the last few years due to a decline in construction. At the same time, they say, the district must pay to maintain 250 miles of water line, 22 storage tanks, 20 pump stations, Las Virgenes Reservoir and Westlake Filtration Plant.

Much of the money traditionally has come from water rates, officials said, but that has been an unreliable source.

"If we rely totally on rates and we go into a drought again, and water consumption goes down, then our income stream is less," said Gene Talmadge, the district's principal planner. "This gives us a blend of funding, so that we can continue to have the funds we need."

The agency would charge landowners $10 for any parcel of one acre or less, and $10 per acre for parcels more than an acre.

The agency is offering exemptions for public lands, open space, and parcels deemed not to be developable, or remote parcels that are not served by the district.

The tax proposal has drawn criticism from officials at Raleigh Enterprises, which operates a vineyard and avocado ranch near Malibu.

Lewis Rose, an executive assistant for the company, said Raleigh Enterprises estimates the levy will cost $3,000 next year, if the agency does not approve exemptions for which the company has applied.

"They found a back door to charge more money for water, is what they did," said Rose. "Basically, what this amounts to is just another new tax."

John Hood, a member of the board of directors of the Agoura Chamber of Commerce, said the proposal is an end run around Proposition 13, which sets a cap on property taxes.

"I don't think they are reflecting what the community wants," said Hood, who added that he was not speaking for the chamber. "If they really want to have community input, they should put it on the ballot, instead of voting on it."

It's a question of fairness, said A. Macneil Stelle, secretary of the district's board of directors.

"We don't want our residential customers paying for facilities that are only going to benefit somebody else in the future," Stelle said.

The agency has raised its rates three years in a row to balance its budget.

"There is (another rate increase) in the mill, eventually, " Stelle said, "but I'm pretty sure it won't be in the next calender year."

The Metropolitan Water District, which supplies Las Virgenes with its water, has implemented a higher rate structure that will go into effect July 1, Stelle said.

"We will absorb that for a while, but eventually we've got to pass it along to customers," he said.

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