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Can L.A. County stormwater tax clear the two-thirds bar for passage?

Can L.A. County stormwater tax clear the two-thirds bar for passage?
A picture on a sign post shows previous drainage problems at the end of the 7700 block of Elmer Street in Sun Valley, an area prone to street flooding in stormy weather. The street has been outfitted with natural swales and drains to help alleviate pooling water. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Julia Ying stood on the beach near Santa Monica Pier, holding up a photograph of a storm drain.

“After a big rain, everything gets rushed down here: car oil, fertilizer … you name it,” Ying told a group in front of her. “And it doesn’t go through any filter.”

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It was a week after L.A.’s first major rain of the season, and hundreds of volunteers had gathered to pick up trash along the beach at a monthly cleanup organized by Heal the Bay.

Ying, a volunteer herself, was giving them instructions — and helping make the case for a countywide measure on the Nov. 6 ballot that would raise money from property taxes to fund stormwater capture and cleanup.

Measure W requires a two-thirds “yes” vote for approval, and the outcome is expected to be close. It would impose a 2.5-cent tax per square foot of property that doesn’t allow water to seep through it. (Government- and nonprofit-owned parcels would be exempt.)

The tax is expected to generate $300 million a year. Most of that would be spent on regional and municipal projects that must improve water quality and may also increase water supply and provide community benefits such as parks or wetlands. Ten percent of revenue would go to the L.A. County Flood Control District for administration.

A coalition of environmental advocates, labor groups, local government officials and some businesses have endorsed the measure, saying it would contribute to cleaner waterways, help protect public health and the environment, increase local water supply and assist cities in meeting a legal mandate.

But other businesses as well as taxpayer and homeowner associations have opposed it, calling it a “forever tax” on rain that would only aggravate L.A.’s affordability crisis.

Passage of the measure also faces some practical hurdles: Many people haven’t heard of it, and it will be placed low on the ballot, well below more hotly contested state and congressional races. And for some voters, memories of the drought have begun to fade.

In the final days ahead of the election, supporters are using grass-roots activities and tried-and-true campaign methods to try to win over voters.

“It’s a little hard to break through all the clutter,” said Parke Skelton of the political consulting firm SG&A Campaigns, which is running the Yes on W campaign.

At the beach event Saturday, volunteers were unfamiliar with the measure.

“I haven’t heard anything on the news or on the radio about it,” said Jackie Hernandez, who brought her 11-year-old son to the cleanup from Altadena.

But once introduced to the idea, some seemed easily swayed.

“I think I’d vote yes,” said Maria Perez, whose three grandchildren had filled buckets with cigarette butts, dried seaweed and food wrappers. “I’d like the beach to be clean…. We all swim in it, we all use it.”

That openness is exactly what the Yes on W campaign and advocates are banking on.

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“It’s gonna be right around 66.6%,” Skelton said. “Moving a few thousand voters might be what does it.”

With only about $1 million to spend, the campaign has bought space on slate mailers and this week launched a cable TV ad promoting the message “Water is life.”

After the recent rainstorm, Heal the Bay pushed out videos with the hashtag #YesOnW on social media. The videos showed water gushing out to the ocean in Santa Monica and an egret surveying a wasteland of plastic bottles and other debris at Ballona Creek.

The group has also been leading “teach-ins” at yoga classes and coffee shops in the South Bay, where some voters tend to lean conservative but also prize their coastline.

Others have led voters on tours of neighborhoods transformed by cisterns and landscape features that help remove debris from runoff.

At popular events like CicLAvia, the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy has touted the benefits for low-income communities, including clean drinking water, parks and access to good jobs.

The stormwater measure is principally designed to help cities comply with their obligations under federal and state laws to clean up the water they discharge into local waterways. Without funding to do so, cities could face costly fines and lawsuits.

“This is a federal and state water-quality mandate [that] happens to have ancillary benefits for water supply,” said William Funderburk, a stormwater expert and attorney who is not affiliated with the Measure W campaign but supports the tax.

That dual benefit has brought together many traditionally warring interests, including labor, environment, industry and municipalities, Funderburk said.

But the L.A. County Business Federation, Valley Industry & Commerce Assn. and California Taxpayers Assn. have vigorously opposed Measure W, describing it as a permanent blank check for government with inadequate specificity about the projects that will be funded.

The ordinance does not have a fixed end date but gives the Board of Supervisors the option to reevaluate the program after 30 years.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger voted against putting the measure on the county ballot. Marsha McLean, the mayor pro tem of Santa Clarita, located in Barger’s district, also said she couldn’t support the tax.

“Here we are trying to figure out how to make homes and apartments affordable, and here we keep tacking taxes on to them,” McLean said.

She also objected to the lack of a credit for taxpayers in municipalities that have already imposed their own stormwater fees, including Santa Clarita.

Some of those opposition arguments are listed in voters’ sample ballots, but outreach to voters has been more tepid, consisting of a few editorials and posts on social media.

This week the California Taxpayers Assn. filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission, a state watchdog, alleging that L.A. County broke the law by spending public dollars to promote Measure W and failing to disclose its spending. A spokesman for the commission confirmed receipt of the complaint but declined to comment.

The sheer number of items on the ballot and the placement of Measure W near the bottom may make it difficult to capture voters’ attention, political consultants said. And with the worst of the drought receding from people’s minds, water doesn’t have the urgency it once did.

“It used to be that the highest issue in people’s minds was the drought,” said Richard Bernard of the research firm FM3, which is not working on the campaign. “Now it’s eclipsed by homelessness.”

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