Following an emotional cross-town debate that belied the relatively small amount of money involved, the Los Angeles City Council adopted a new set of sewer rates Tuesday that will cut fees for most San Fernando Valley and Westside residents at the expense of inner-city communities.
The 8-6 vote--split along geographic lines--came four days after seven council members from Central, South and East Los Angeles stormed out of City Hall chambers in protest during heated debate over the proposal.
And while, at least on the surface, the debate was over an arcane sewer rate formula, the unusually personal and angry rhetoric reflected the deeper divisions in the city.
The long-awaited vote clearly strained already sensitive relations between Valley lawmakers and council members from other parts of Los Angeles, who painted the proposal as a "money grab" by affluent residents at the expense of the poor. In suburban communities, average bills could drop by about $25 a year, and in inner-city districts, rates could rise by about $12 a year or less for median households.
Relationships between the two factions have been particularly turbulent since the Northridge earthquake in 1994, when council members clashed repeatedly over how to fairly distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in federal emergency funding.
Many council members from inner-city communities argued that nearly all of the funding was being spent in the Valley while quake-damaged areas such as Hollywood and the Adams district were overlooked.
UCLA political scientist Xandra Kayden said, "It's all part of a larger issue about the haves and have-nots." And it's a battle that she fears will be fought over and over again. "This may very well resurface if you have another similar issue" where money and city resources are at stake, she said.
For some council members, the sewer rate proposal also harked back to the adoption last year of a controversial water rate formula that gave many Valley residents a break on their water bills, but increased the fees for residents in South and Central Los Angeles.
"It's very disappointing that we are seeing more and more of this," said Councilwoman Rita Walters, whose South Los Angeles constituents will see a median bill increase by $10.93 per year.
Tuesday's debate, even by council standards, was bitter.
"This is one council member who will not sit here and allow this council to institutionalize economic apartheid," said an emotional Councilman Rudy Svorinich Jr., who represents Harbor area residents. Despite the dire rhetoric, the median household in Svorinich's district will pay just 7 cents a year more under the proposal.
"I think some council members showed their true colors," said Councilman Mike Hernandez, who vehemently opposed the proposal, citing the $11.35-per-year increase in the median bill for his East Los Angeles constituents.
At one point as the discussion grew heated, Valley Councilman Hal Bernson blew up at colleague Nate Holden, who opposed the new fees and was part of the walkout protest last week.
"If you want to walk out, walk out now," Bernson yelled across the room.
Given the minimal rate increase involved, the bitter debate over the fees and last week's walkout protest appeared to have more to do with politics than dollars and cents, according to some observers. "A lot of it has to do with politicians trying to position themselves with their constituency," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at the Claremont Graduate School. "With it coming up on an election year, it aggravates it."
Kayden said that regardless of whether they won or lost the vote, each council member will not soon forget this battle. "This was certainly a painful experience for everyone involved," she said.
The eight supporters of the measure--all of whom represent districts where most fees will drop under the change--argued that the new system is a more accurate way of calculating sewer fees.
"The sewer service fee is supposed to be for the cost of using the sewer," said Bernson, whose northwest Valley constituents would get a $21.64 drop in their median annual bill.
The new rates were proposed in response to years of complaints by Valley residents who said the current system for calculating rates is inequitable. In fact, two North Hollywood residents filed a class-action lawsuit against the city last month, charging that the system is unfair.
The city cannot measure the exact amount of sewage generated by each home and instead relies on a formula that assumes about 60% of the water entering a home ends up in the sewers as waste water.
But Valley residents have long argued that that assumption is wrong. Because of the larger lots in the Valley, residents there say that most of their water is used to irrigate landscaping and fill swimming pools and does not end up in the sewers.