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Air Monitors Ask Loan From County's Funds

May 13, 1986|GREG JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

A debate over who should pay for clean air in the county has forced the cash-strapped San Diego Air Pollution Control District to ask county supervisors for an unusual $200,000 loan that will allow it to monitor air quality through June 30.

Without the loan, the resulting cash shortage could force the district to lay off some staffers and close down some of the county's nine air quality monitoring stations for the rest of this fiscal year, according to pollution control officer Richard Sommerville.

However, Sommerville said layoffs and shutdowns are "unlikely because the money will surface from somewhere."

The loan request was generated by an ongoing debate among budget-conscious county supervisors--acting as the air quality district's board of directors--on how the district could replace $400,000 in general fund money that the county now contributes to the district. Supervisors want to reduce the general fund support because of budget-cutting pressures at the federal, state and county levels.

But supervisors have been unable to agree on a funding replacement scheme because most of the proposals would drastically boost permit fees paid by either the owners of smaller companies or the handful of companies that generate most of the county's industrial pollution. The smaller firms are primarily gas stations and dry cleaners.

The larger companies argue that the county should retain some funding involvement to offset private contributions.

Anxious to avoid permit fee increases, representatives of district-regulated businesses have been arguing their cases at a pair of workshops and three board meetings held in the last three months.

However, while the board has been debating where the replacement funding would come from, "the (deadline) has really already passed," Sommerville said. "We're asking for a loan to carry us through to the end of the fiscal year in June."

Although the county's various agencies routinely experience cash-flow problems that can be solved by a "simple accounting technique," the district's status as a quasi-independent body forces it to rely on the unusual procedure of applying for a loan, according to a spokesman for the county auditor's office.

However, just as Sommerville has been scrambling for money to keep the district operating, the businesses that would be asked to pay stiffer fees to make up the $400,000 shortfall have been scrambling just as fast to lessen the impact of fee changes.

A district staff proposal that would make up the $400,000 by linking the cost of pollution permits to the amount of pollution being generated by individual companies has drawn the most industry reaction.

To San Diego's 13 largest industrial polluters, the proposal is seen as an obviously illegal "pollution tax" that would be tossed out by the courts.

"Setting fees based on emissions rather than staff time spent on a particular application would be irrational and unreasonable, given the nature of the (district's) operations," according to Christopher W. Garrett, an attorney representing the Industrial Environmental Assn. of San Diego County, composed of the county's 13 heaviest polluters.

Association members include San Diego Gas & Electric, GA Technologies, Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical, Solar Turbines, the Convair Division of General Dynamics, Rohr Industries and Hewlett-Packard.

Rather than relying on an "emissions tax" that would generate most of the district's budget--and eliminate the need for county general fund support--Garrett suggested that the district continue to draw from the county's general fund and boost fees for smaller sources of pollution.

Not surprisingly, to the spokesman for the owners of more than 1,200 service stations that are "really getting hammered" by increased fees, boosting permit fees paid by larger sources of pollution is a common-sense solution to a knotty problem.

"We understand the need for air quality and I don't think anyone is suggesting that (air quality programs) be eliminated," said Howard Wainscott, an Allied Gardens Chevron station owner who represents San Diego service station owners in the Southern California Service Station Assn.

However, Wainscott complained that service station owners--who must purchase and maintain the pollution control devices that stop fumes from escaping when motorists fill their gas tanks--now "contribute 1% of the pollution but pay 35% of the fees."

According to figures generated by the Los Angeles-based association, San Diego service station owners already pay the highest pollution control fees in the state, Wainscott said.

Owners of dry-cleaning businesses also have been supporting the proposal to boost fees paid by companies that emit larger quantities of pollution.

"We in San Diego are already paying the highest fees in the state and the nation," complained Henry Gelbart, owner of Town & Country Cleaners in El Cajon and president of a local dry-cleaning association.

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