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L.A. County officials considering property tax for stormwater measures

L.A. County officials considering property tax for stormwater measures
The Tujunga Spreading Grounds in Sun Valley, shown under construction in 2017, are designed to capture water released from nearby dams that then seeps through porous soil into the aquifer. A parcel tax being considered in L.A. County could fund similar projects. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

At Los Amigos Park in Santa Monica, 11-year-old Pony League baseball players wearing Padres and Dodgers uniforms huddled with their coaches after a recent game.

Standing atop a grassy area next to the baseball diamond, many may not have been aware of what lay underneath: a 53,000-gallon storage tank for stormwater runoff.

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Built in 2017, the project was designed to divert some 550,000 gallons of water from a nearby storm drain each year, reducing the pollution that flows into Santa Monica Bay.

The diverted runoff is pumped, treated and ultimately used for indoor flushing at the park's bathrooms and for irrigation, keeping the field a vibrant green and reducing unnecessary uses of potable water.

The project is one example of what county leaders hope to see more of as they consider putting a property tax before voters this November to raise revenue for stormwater capture and cleaning.

The measure, a proposed parcel tax of between 3 and 4 cents per square foot of area deemed impermeable to water — such as roofs, driveways, garages and parking lots — could generate up to $400 million annually. The money would be used to improve water quality, help L.A. County comply with federal clean water regulations and make the region more "water resilient" in the face of a changing climate and unpredictable water supply.

"The urgency and the need are crystal clear," Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis wrote in a 2016 motion directing the Department of Public Works to develop a drought resiliency plan, from which the proposed tax emerged. "The time to ensure a clean and reliable water supply for Los Angeles is now."

L.A. County considered a similar tax in 2013. But that measure, which would have been voted on only by property owners, was killed due to stiff opposition.

Amid a deepening drought in 2016, followed by historic rainfall in 2017, county officials took up the idea again. This time, they convened a "stakeholder advisory committee" to engage leaders from across the region. They developed an education campaign to drum up public support. They added provisions to benefit disadvantaged communities.

The county also sponsored a state bill, approved in October, that would give the local flood control district the authority to levy a tax, rather than a fee — a nuance that provides more flexibility to spend on water quality, supply and community investment.

The water demand in L.A. County each year is about 1.8 million acre-feet. Only about 200,000 acre-feet are collected locally in reservoirs and dams, while tens of thousands more run off into the ocean, sweeping out trash, bacteria and other pollutants with it. (An acre-foot is the volume that covers one acre of surface area to one foot of depth.)

The county has to rely on other sources to make up the difference.

"It's going to get more expensive," public works director Mark Pestrella said. "With climate change, with drought, it's definitely gotten to a place where every drop counts."

If approved, the parcel tax could enable the county to collect up to 300,000 additional acre-feet of stormwater a year — enough to meet the needs of about 2.5 million people.

While water supply is one component of the initiative, the primary goal is to improve water quality before putting it back into the region's oceans, rivers and lakes.

Under federal law and associated permits given out by the state, cities across L.A. County are required to clean up the flows they dump into waterways. Doing so is expected to cost about $20 billion over the next two decades. Without funding, cities can be held liable with fines and costly lawsuits.

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"We're putting on a program that will help cities [meet] their obligation to comply with the Clean Water Act," Pestrella said.

Under the draft "Safe, Clean Water Program," schools and government parcels would be exempt from the 3- to 4-cent levy. Property owners would have the opportunity to appeal the county's tax assessment and qualify for credits or rebates for projects they have already undertaken.

The average tax would range from $73 a year for a typical single-family house to $14,500 a year for a commercial building with a large paved area, like a Costco store. It would not have a sunset provision.

Half of the revenue would go toward regional watershed projects, 40% to municipal projects and 10% to the flood control district.

The money could go toward major capital projects such as construction of "spreading grounds" that capture water running off the base of mountains, wetlands improvement or installation of underground cisterns like the one at Los Amigos Park. It could fund smaller neighborhood fixes like "green streets" that absorb water flowing off of sidewalks and into gutters. Or it could be used for operations and maintenance of existing infrastructure.

Regional projects would be vetted and scored primarily on the basis of their impact on water quality and supply. Projects that are the most cost-efficient, leverage outside dollars and provide community benefits — a park that offers recreation space and a mode of carbon capture, for example, or wetlands that restore a natural habitat — would receive additional points. Local governments would select the municipal projects.

"This would be by far the most significant action that the county and its 88 cities have taken to reduce stormwater pollution and start using stormwater as a resource," said Mark Gold, associate vice chancellor for environment and sustainability at UCLA and former president of Heal the Bay.

In a recent poll about the stormwater measure, two-thirds of voters surveyed said they would "definitely" or "probably" support it. After receiving additional information, close to three-quarters of voters said they would do so.

The ballot measure would need a two-thirds vote to pass.

Richard Bernard, a partner at the research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, which conducted the poll for the county, said the results showed the most support he has seen for a stormwater measure since beginning polling on the topic more than a decade ago.

"People are increasingly aware of what stormwater is and what stormwater runoff is," Bernard said. "They're concerned about the water supply, they're concerned about water quality, but they're also concerned about the wildlife off the California coast … [and] the quality of the beaches."

But not everyone is convinced.

Businesses, which would face the heftiest taxes, are concerned about the measure's cost and the lack of specificity about which projects will actually be funded.

"That's a lot of money," Gary Toebben, chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said. "I don't think there's any intent by the business community to just write blank checks."

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Some city leaders commended the county for its broad effort but expressed reservations.

"I truly appreciate the county's desire to address the issues. However, at this point, I'm not sure whether our city is going to support it or not," said Marsha McLean, mayor pro tem of Santa Clarita, which opposed the 2013 measure.

Chief among McLean's concerns is the fact that her city already collects a stormwater fee from residents, and she wants to ensure they don't get taxed twice.

"We haven't seen anything substantial to let us know that there is a viable credit rebate program that can work," she said.

She, along with South Pasadena City Council member Diana Mahmud, also worried funds could be diluted through spending on programs other than compliance with clean water regulations.

The Department of Public Works will accept public comments on the draft plan until May 11 and then submit a revised version to the Board of Supervisors.

The board is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the matter June 26. If the supervisors wish to move forward, they must approve the plan and adopt a resolution to place it on the November ballot by Aug. 10.

Twitter: @AgrawalNina

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