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Endorsement: No on Proposition P

Proposition P would levy a parcel tax to help fund Los Angeles County parks. Above, Legg Lake Park in the Whittier Narrows County Recreation Area.
(Los Angeles Times)

In August, at close to the last possible minute to do so and with little notice to the public, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors added a measure to the Nov. 4 ballot that would impose an annual $23 parcel tax to pay for parks and other facilities. Proposition P — think P for parks — is offered as an extension of a tax that property owners have been paying annually since voters approved it in 1992 but that expires next June.

And what could be bad about continuing to raise money for parks? For more than parks, in fact? Proponents note that the 1992 ballot measure — Proposition A — has been used to acquire and preserve open space, develop trails, build recreation facilities, refurbish restrooms and create youth centers, senior centers, nature centers. Its funds were used to make improvements to the Hollywood Bowl and other cultural landmarks. It paid for projects that employed thousands of young people.

Proposition P’s ballot title echoes those lofty achievements and more. It’s called the Safe Neighborhood Parks, Gang Prevention, Youth/Senior Recreation, Beaches and Wildlife Protection measure. Who would be against any of those things?

But slow down. Are there better options that might produce more of what the public wants and needs? Isn’t there also a 1996 parks tax (sometimes called Baby A) that will continue to cover the maintenance costs for all the things that Proposition A has provided for another 4 1/2 years? Why was there no needs assessment like the one that took place over two years of consultation and hearings when shaping Proposition A?

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Why does Proposition P apply a regressive, flat per-parcel tax, unlike Proposition A, which assessed its tax using a formula based mostly on a property’s size? (That tax ranged from 3 cents to $10,000.) Why should so much of the burden for parks funding be transferred from wealthy landowners to average property owners? Why, if so many of Proposition A’s projects were itemized in the ballot measure, does Proposition P not actually itemize anything? Why does it make sense to divide a huge chunk of the funds equally among the five supervisors, for them to spend as they see fit, instead of according to the county’s greatest need?

The process that brought Proposition P to the ballot bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the fiasco that was the stormwater-cleanup fee effort of 2012. It was a worthy idea, but the board handled it so poorly — with insufficient notice to the public and too little opportunity to discuss options and alternatives — that it was killed after outcry at a required “protest hearing.”

If Proposition P were a legislative measure out of Sacramento, like the water bond (Proposition 1) or the rainy-day fund (Proposition 2) on the same ballot, it would have been the subject of months of hearings and opportunities for public input, and the language would have been improved accordingly.

But Proposition P has instead been an example of the closed-door process all too typical of the Board of Supervisors. It was negotiated and drafted out of public view and was shaped by polling results rather than sound policymaking. The public was first informed of the proposed measure just four days before it was placed on the ballot. And it is now presented as an ultimatum: Vote “yes,” or else destroy your public parks, rob seniors and abandon youth to gangs.

In fact, failure of Proposition P would not defund any ongoing program or undermine any land acquired or facility built by Proposition A. Yes, the county would have less funds available to acquire new open space or build new facilities until a better-vetted replacement tax is passed (the next chance will be in two years). But there remains $150 million — nearly three years’ worth of funding — yet to be spent. The Baby A tax will continue to bring in $28 million a year in property taxes for parks and all the other benefits until its expiration in mid-2019.

That gives the county plenty of time to go back to the drawing board and present a better measure on the 2016 ballot. Voters should say no to Proposition P and insist on a broader, more open, more public and more honest discussion about what projects are needed and how they should be paid for. The process should include at least the following:

• A needs assessment. It’s irresponsible to begin divvying up more than $50 million each year without a clear sense of what the county and cities need most and how the money can most effectively be spent.

• Performance measures. There are required annual financial audits in Proposition P, but voters should expect there also to be performance audits, with goals and benchmarks to gauge the degree to which county residents are being served by the projects being funded.

• A statement of priorities from the Board of Supervisors. The county pulled back its proposed stormwater ballot measure early last year, but it must revisit the question of funding to capture and clean up stormwater runoff. Between parks and stormwater funding, which is more urgent and should come first?

• An explanation of the degree to which this tax can or should supplant some of the work that the stormwater fee was intended to cover. A portion of the Proposition P funds are dedicated to clean water projects. Would it decease the need for the stormwater fee, or vice versa?

• An explanation of the degree to which a parcel tax adopted last year by voters in two districts in and adjacent to the Hollywood Hills and the Santa Monica Mountains — a tax also ostensibly designed to replace the expiring Proposition A — decreases the need for another replacement tax.

• A public explanation for moving from a square-foot formula to a flat per-parcel tax. It may in fact be the case that changes in the law make it too cumbersome and too expensive to develop a valid formula that takes lot size into account. But such a formula was in fact used when voters adopted a trauma tax to sustain emergency services.

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