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Mayor Backs Rate Hike to Pay for Sewer Repairs

Some taxpayers groups oppose the proposed increase of 42% over five years. City officials say it is necessary to fix the antiquated system.

August 07, 2004|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

Endorsing a legal settlement requiring Los Angeles to spend $2 billion to fix its sewer system, Mayor James K. Hahn and other city officials said Friday they are prepared to sell a proposed 42% increase in sewer rates.

But some taxpayer advocates noted that the higher sewer charge is one of four significant tax and rate hikes currently being proposed for Los Angeles residents, who advocates predicted will feel overwhelmed.

The latest proposed rate increase, which would start in December, would ratchet up the average monthly sewer charge of $21 for a home by $1.75 each year for the next five years. At the end of five years, the average monthly bill will have gone up $8.75, adding $105 to the annual tab.

The charge, which requires City Council approval, will help finance a 10-year repair program for the sewer system to settle a lawsuit by an environmental group and state and federal regulators over thousands of sewage spills into the streets and rivers of Los Angeles.

"We are going to meet with the neighborhood councils to discuss this, but you can't put a price on the health of our children and the health of the bay," Hahn said at a City Hall news conference with four City Council members to announce the settlement and rate hike.

"Every homeowner who owns a home knows you need to fix the plumbing once in a while, and it costs money to do that," Hahn added. "This is our plumber's bill and we think the public will support it."

The sewer rate increase, however, is being proposed at the same time Los Angeles residents are being asked to pay more for water service, cleaner water runoff and additional police officers.

The City Council recently approved an 11% increase in water rates, and voters in November are being asked to approve a $500-million bond measure to clean the water in city storm drains. That water bond would cost an owner of a home assessed at $350,000 about $56 a year for 20 years and would show up on their property tax bill.

In addition, Los Angeles County voters are being asked in a separate November ballot measure to increase the sales tax by a half-cent to pay for thousands more police officers.

"With the combination of all of these things, the taxpayers are getting pounded," said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

The group opposes the sales tax increase and will now examine the need for the boost in sewer fees. "I think the need is genuine, but it is a self-inflicted wound because for years the City Council postponed taking care of infrastructure needs and instead used its money to provide extremely generous pay and benefit packages to city employees," Vosburgh said.

Hahn was city attorney during many of the years when Los Angeles fought the lawsuit demanding repairs to the system, but denied that past inaction was to blame for the service charges now being proposed.

Albert Farash, a retired aerospace worker who lives in Hollywood, said he supports the police tax and believes the sewer fee increase is probably necessary, but he will think twice about voting for the water bond knowing the other three increases are coming.

"I don't know if that's going to fly if they come all at once," Farash said.

City officials said they hope the proposed sewer charge increase will not negatively affect voter support for the police and water bond measures, which require two-thirds votes to pass.

Councilman Eric Garcetti said the sewer and storm-water costs are mandated by federal law, and are not an optional expense.

Hahn said he hopes voters will understand that the proposals are necessary to maintain the city's standard of living.

"I don't think that people are going to object to having less sewer spills in our city," Hahn said.

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