Faced by widespread public opposition, the Los Angeles County supervisors on Tuesday sent a proposed parcel fee to combat storm water pollution back to the drawing board.
The proposed fee would be levied on all property owners within the county's flood control district, raising an estimated $290 million a year to help cities and the county deal with widespread water quality issues stemming from polluted storm water and urban runoff and the need to comply with new state regulations.
The supervisors had contemplated putting the fee on a mail-only ballot to the affected property owners. They rejected that notion, while leaving the possibility open for a reworked measure to be placed on the ballot in a general election in June or November 2014. At that point, all registered county voters would have a say, regardless of whether they owned property subject to the fee.
Unlike the mail-only vote, which would have required a simple majority, a vote in the general election would require a two-thirds majority to pass. It also would be more expensive: A mail-only election would probably cost the county $2.5 million, while putting the issue on a general ballot would cost an estimated $10 million.
The board first considered the proposal in January but deferred a vote after a contentious hearing at which nearly 200 people spoke. Although Tuesday's hearing was somewhat more sparsely attended, it lasted more than three hours.
Environmental groups, unions interested in the possibility of green jobs from infrastructure projects, and some city officials spoke in favor of the measure. They urged the supervisors to either go ahead with a mail ballot or set a certain date for an election in 2014, as Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky had proposed.
"We need a date for this to come back before you, so the public has assurance it isn't just getting shelved," Kirsten James, water quality director for the nonprofit group Heal the Bay, told the board.
Members of the regional water quality board also appeared to urge the supervisors to move forward with the measure, saying the funding would be important to allow the county and cities to implement clean water projects required under newly updated municipal storm water permits.
Supervisors Don Knabe and Gloria Molina had sought to reject the proposal in its current form and look into bringing it back at some future date in a general election, but did not specify when. The supervisors said the fee should come with a sunset date and a specific list of projects, as well as a more substantial credit than now proposed for property owners who have already invested in storm water capture and treatment.
The supervisors complained about the outreach process that led up to the hearing — for instance, notices sent to property owners with a protest form did not include a return envelope or Spanish translation.
Business groups, along with school districts, some cities and other entities concerned about the effect on their budgets, opposed the fee, and many of them voiced support for Knabe and Molina's proposal.
Heidi Mather, whose company recently built a 244-unit apartment complex in Woodland Hills, said the firm paid $500,000 for storm water mitigation measures.
"We've already paid this fee — in fact, that would be over 50 years of paying this fee," she said.
The supervisors passed Knabe and Molina's proposal, but agreed to set a nonbinding goal of having a measure ready for the ballot in 2014. They requested quarterly progress reports from the staff.
Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich cast the one dissenting vote, complaining that the storm water regulations were an unfunded mandate.
"This is a state responsibility, and the state should be providing 100% of the costs," he said.
Antonovich's office also picked up the tab to bus residents from Santa Clarita to downtown Los Angeles to register their disapproval at the hearing.
The vote left both sides with mixed feelings.
"Obviously, we're delighted that it's been delayed," said Carol Schatz, chief executive of the business advocacy group Central City Assn. But Schatz said the group still feels it is "not equitable" for property owners alone to pay for projects that would benefit the community at large.
James of Heal the Bay acknowledged that there is a "very high bar" to getting a measure passed in a general election, but said she was pleased that at least the supervisors had committed to continuing to work on the proposal.