The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors -- in a 3-2 vote -- Tuesday approved a plan to ask property owners to OK a tax to clean up drinking water and local waterways.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky urged approval of the "Clean Water, Clean
Beaches Water Quality" fee.
"This initiative is critically important," he said. "If we don't do this ... we will have this imposed on us by a court, by a regulatory agency or by both."
Public works employees have been working since 2008 -- in coordination with at least 60 municipalities, environmental organizations and other interested parties -- to reach consensus on how to address the county's runoff pollution and improve the quality of its drinking water.
County waterways are fouled with trash, infection-causing bacteria and toxic chemicals, according to Gail Farber, director of the Department of Public Works, who said storm water runoff is a leading cause of water pollution.
Agencies and municipalities within the county spent an estimated $340 million to control pollutants in fiscal year 2010-11, Farber said, estimating the cost of complying with existing water-quality regulations to be in the billions of dollars.
The proposed fee would raise an estimated $276 million annually from more than 2 million property owners -- an average of about $135 per owner -- though fees would vary widely because they would be proportionate to the amount of property owned and runoff generated by paved areas and rooftops.
Under the plan, those dollars would be split between the Flood Control District, nine watershed areas set up to manage clean-up projects and the 87 cities that make up the county.
Before any tax goes into effect, property owners will have a chance to object at a public hearing and then -- unless a majority of owners object in writing -- to vote on the matter by mail-in ballot, currently scheduled for March.
Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe objected to the mail-in ballots, saying residents should have the chance to vote on the measure as part of a general election.
Antonovich characterized the plan to mail ballots to property owners as a "sneak attack."
Under the plan as it stands, the fee must be approved by a majority of property owners who respond by mailing back ballots on the measure. But if many owners fail to respond at all, a low percentage of total owners could pass the
Knabe said polling showed that the measure would fail and that it amounted to "taxing the electorate for something that is a state and federal
Yaroslavsky recommended giving special consideration to financially- strapped school districts that would be subject to the tax, if approved.
The board agreed and asked public works employees to work closely with school officials to ensure that they are part of the group overseeing the cleanup plan and that the schools can use some of the funds raised to build their own water quality projects and pay for programs to educate the public on clean water issues.
Supervisors Gloria Molina and Mark Ridley-Thomas joined Yaroslavsky in voting for the measure.
"It's not a small thing" that the clean-up program will create 3,600 jobs, Ridley-Thomas said.
Based on the board's approval, the county will schedule a public hearing on the matter.