(Editor’s Note: The battle over a proposed parcel tax to pay for storm water runoff fixes in Los Angeles County has brought many protests from individual homeowners to the Los Angeles Unified School District that would be on the hook for millions of dollars. Tracy Rafter, president of BizFed, the Los Angeles County Business Federation, representing business organizations with more than 250,000 businesses spanning LA County, recently expressed some of business’s concerns to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in an extensive letter, which was also signed by 48 additional Los Angeles County business organizations. Excerpts from that letter follow.)
It’s a Property Tax, Not a Fee
First and foremost, our members continue to have serious concerns about the legal basis for a property owner vote and the likelihood of a successful legal challenge as the measure is currently proposed.
For the measure to qualify as a “fee” under Article 13D of the California Constitution, the funds must be designated for specific, identified projects, rather than categories of projects to benefit the general public.
Since the Jan. 15 Protest Hearing, the Department has made available proposed project criteria, but a list of specific projects still does not exist. What the Department presents as such a list is actually a list of generic placeholder entities whose actual projects they anticipate would be defined after the proposed measure passes. Such an approach demonstrates that the proposed measure meets the legal definition of a special tax, which would require approval from a two-thirds majority of all voters, rather than a fee, which would require approval from a simple majority of affected property owners.
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Parcel owners who already spend massive amounts of money to reduce their property’s storm water pollution – be it because of proactive business practice or existing permitting or regulatory requirements – should receive fee reductions commensurate to their mitigation. Moreover, the fee reduction should occur in a timely manner through a clear, concise formulation, and not through a complicated and time- consuming refund process.
Credit for On-Site Measures In Place
The Department has proposed a formula to allow property owners who capture and treat storm water on-site to file for a reduction of up to 80 percent of the tax assessed. This is a step in the right direction, but we continue to believe that property owners who mitigate runoff for 100 percent of the design storm should be entitled to a 100 percent reduction in the tax.
Moreover, the Department appears committed to using a formula driven by an arbitrary ratio of the treated volume to the runoff volume that undercounts the amount of runoff treated … On top of all of that, the three-year time limit on fee reductions unnecessarily creates the need for parcel owners to perpetually reapply.
Credit for Existing Storm Water Permits
The Regional Water Board already tightly monitors many of our members who currently hold storm water permits. The proposed measure would offer them little in the way of compliance with those permits, and the additional new tax they would pay to the County do not appear to reduce any of their risk under those existing permits.
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Other Issues to Address
- Ensuring that rental property owners can pass through the tax to their tenants;
- Ensuring that projects implemented to address regional storm water align with the alternative compliance allowed in the County storm water permit; and
- Requiring maintenance of effort levels, so that Cities are not rewarded simply because they are currently doing less than others to comply with water quality standards. In addition to the issues we raised prior to the Jan. 15 Protest Hearing, we have reviewed the project criteria released since that date, and we offer these concerns, which we hope can be addressed moving forward:
- The project criteria appear to give highest priority to projects that have multiple benefits over those that reduce pollution loads, but the purpose of these funds is very specific: pollution load reduction;
- The criteria need to place pollution load reduction as the highest priority and establish cost benefit thresholds for those reductions;
- Projects that can achieve pollution reduction goals for X should be given priority over those that will cost 100X and some cost effectiveness limits should be established beyond which funding will not be permitted; and
- Project popularity should not be among the criteria, and funds should not be used to achieve social benefits other than pollution reduction.