Villaraigosa backs mail-in ballots on fee increases

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has thrown his weight behind an unusual plan to ask property owners across the city to quadruple what they pay to fight storm-water pollution -- using a process that allows the city to avoid the usual two-thirds requirement for raising new revenues.

Under the proposal, property owners citywide would be sent mail-in ballots and given 45 days this summer to return their votes. The procedure would allow the fee increases to win approval with a simple majority.

City officials said the higher fees -- which would increase from $23 per year to $99 for the average parcel by 2014 -- are needed to pay for the ongoing cost of storm-water cleanup projects being built under Proposition O, a $500-million bond measure approved by voters in 2004.


If the city lacks the money to operate and maintain those projects, “we’re going to be throwing away the taxpayers’ $500 million,” said Cynthia Ruiz, the mayor’s top appointee on the Board of Public Works.

“The mayor supports clean water,” added Villaraigosa spokesman Matt Szabo. “And he thinks the residents will support the idea that we should maintain our clean water projects.”

Villaraigosa’s appointees on the public works board voted Monday to ask the City Council to move ahead with the plan to increase the storm-water pollution abatement charge, which appears on property tax bills.

If the council backs the proposal, sanitation officials hope to send out ballots in June to the owners of 788,620 parcels. The ballots would have to be returned by mail or in person.

Although property owner ballots are regularly issued for lighting or park assessment districts, those involve small neighborhoods -- not the entire city, Councilman Tom LaBonge said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a citywide mailing,” said LaBonge, a 35-year veteran of City Hall.

The plan is eliciting jeers from some anti-tax activists, who point out that Villaraigosa has already tripled the city’s trash collection fee from $11 per month to $36.32 per month for single-family homes. Proposition O currently adds $10.22 to the property tax bill of a $350,000 home and will eventually climb to $35. The mayor also campaigned last fall for two education bond measures that will increase the size of property tax bills over the next decade.

“People are already staggering under the load,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

Proposition O has been providing the money for planned efforts to clean up Machado Lake in Wilmington and Echo Park Lake and reduce the amount of bacteria, metals and toxic sediments from such locations as Ballona Creek and Marina del Rey. Vosburgh said he believes the city’s general fund should already have the money to cover the cost of those efforts.

Sanitation officials said a telephone poll conducted last year for Los Angeles County officials -- who are considering their own storm-water cleanup plan -- showed that the concept of fee increases received support from 60% to 65% of respondents, shy of the two-thirds needed in a regular election but enough to win in an election involving property owners.

Still, one county supervisor said that poll was designed to test support for a new, ambitious program -- not an initiative that already exists. “The city’s got a budget crisis and they’re looking for a way to pay for things they’ve already been doing,” county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said.

Backers of the city’s clean-water plan said the money would help Los Angeles comply with the federal Clean Water Act, which requires the city to address pollution that enters the Los Angeles River and Santa Monica Bay. They also argued that the higher fees would free up $24.6 million in the city’s budget that currently pays for the cleanup of storm-water runoff.

The city’s storm-water pollution abatement fee is $23 per year for the average parcel -- one measuring 6,650 square feet. Under the proposal, the figure would double next year to $47.16. By 2014, the higher fees would generate an extra $92 million annually.

Councilwoman Jan Perry said she feared that the proposal is being rushed and, if handled clumsily, could meet the same fate as Measure B, the solar ballot plan that was defeated by voters in March.

But Mark Gold, president of Heal the Bay, said his group has been talking with Villaraigosa’s office and the Bureau of Sanitation about the proposed fee increases for three years. He promised to publicize the city’s efforts to divert polluted runoff and create cleaner beaches.

“There is a great deal of education that needs to occur for people to understand just how dire the situation is,” he said.