Some neighborhood activists are still fuming over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's plan to seek a vote of property owners to quadruple storm-water cleanup fees. They claim the move is exactly like his earlier plan, now underway, to ratchet up trash collection fees.
They're right to fume, but they're wrong about the comparison. The trash fees, love them or hate them, make sense. They are paid by homeowners to cover the costs of a service to homeowners, and there is no good reason for the rest of the city to continue footing their bill. Homeowners also have at least a modicum of control over their costs: They can get more trash picked up if they pay for more bins. But homeowners have no more direct control than anyone else over polluted street runoff.
The City Council was to act today to schedule an election in which only property owners vote. Sounds fair, right? If they would have to pay the higher fee, they should be the ones to get to vote. But this was to be a stealth election, conducted only by mail, requiring a simple majority and not the two-thirds of all voters that such increases usually require. The rush through council, the untried mail vote, the mayor's insistence that this was merely "cost recovery," the lack of public discussion -- all gave the move the same sour flavor as last month's solar power ballot fiasco.
But this time the mayor appears to have discovered his own over-cleverness and has separated the fee proposal from the time-sensitive budget process. That gives residents time to understand what they're being asked to pay for.
Storm water is the stuff that runs down the street when it rains, taking with it the trash, oil and other pollutants it picks up on the way to the concrete-lined washes and into groundwater, ponds and the ocean. It's what Los Angeles voters agreed to clean up in 2004 when they passed Proposition O, authorizing $500 million in bonds for pollution abatement projects.
Property owners have been paying for storm-water pollution abatement, at $20 to $30 a year, for over a decade. Now, with Proposition O, they pay a second fee to service and retire the bonds. The perverse logic behind quadrupling the first fee seems to be that, well, they paid this much without complaint, so let's get them to pay more.
Or maybe the mayor thought no one would notice. The irony is that, five years ago, voters passed Proposition O in overwhelming numbers precisely because they knew so much about it. Villaraigosa keeps saying that to solve the budget problem, the city needs to work together. He can take the first step and stop trying to work the city over.