The list of items that have floated down the Los Angeles River has a shuddering “yuck” factor. Just ask Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for Los Angeles County’s public works department. Lee has a long list of the stuff that floats down the river: cigarette butts, fast food containers, mannequin heads, and yes, sometimes a human body.
He notes that floating trash is only a part of the picture, explaining that nutrients, pet waste and heavy metals are also found in the water and can’t be trapped in catch basin screens.
“I mean there [are] all kinds of nastiness that comes down,” Lee said in a telephone interview Wednesday, “and it really points to one of the chief problems which is that members of the public aren’t being responsible with how they dispose of their waste.”
There’s no dispute that the LA River and Pacific Ocean are polluted, but there is a question of who will fund the ongoing efforts to mitigate water pollution, including the waste from storm water runoff. A proposed measure from the county has offered one solution that involves an extra parcel fee on property owners.
It would mean a lot of money to help the City of Long Beach. According to a statement from Long Beach Councilmember Steven Neal’s office, the County estimates that Long Beach will receive about $4.5 million per year and would fund various projects in the Long Beach area including maintenance of storm water projects and key projects to create or improve wetlands and coastal habitats like the Deforest Wetlands. Neal’s office spokesman says that the councilmember supports the measure, but looks forward to a full discussion in a future Council meeting.
That additional parcel fee to fight pollution may not be a high amount for many property owners. If the measure is ultimately passed, most single family homeowners would pay $54 per year or less, according to the county’s information website.
However the price tag for other kinds of property owners does run very high. If the measure passes, school districts cannot be exempt from paying that additional fee, and last week, the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) Board of Education voted unanimously to oppose the measure last week after learning that the school district will be assessed a parcel fee of $715,000, according to Dr. James Novak, chief business and financial officer for LBUSD. Novak presented a brief report at the Dec. 18 board meeting and estimated that the $715,000 figure would mean that at least seven teachers would be laid off at the school district.
The school district’s figures aren’t disputed by the county’s public works department’s spokesman. Lee explained that Proposition 218 does not provide for exemptions and every parcel owner has to pay. He added that the department is working with the school district and notes that some of the funds from the measure could be directed to storm water educational programs in addition to capital projects.
“So while we’re sensitive to the impact this would have on their budget and planning process, at this time, we don’t see a way that…schools can be exempted,” Lee said, adding that the school districts are “valuable partners in addressing the issue of storm water pollution prevention.”
Signal Hill Councilmember Larry Forester says school districts shouldn’t be exempted.
“You put as much pollution into the LA River as anybody and in some cases more because you have more impermeable surfaces,” Forester said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “The water runs straight into the storm drain and into the LA River. The idea that you would be exempt from the Clean Water Act is ridiculous.”
Forester acknowledges that the measure may need to be “tweaked,” but he supports the measure. The Signal Hill councilmember noted that the efforts to get the measure to this point was a collaborative process with the numerous groups that included the heads of public work departments and the sanitation district and environmental groups like Heal the Bay and the National Resource Defense Council.
“It brought us all together at one table,” Forester said. “That was a phenomenon to get 25 of these groups together, and the consensus was that the only way that this was going to work is to do some sort of parcel tax.”
Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe has his own concerns with the measure, but he has focused primarily on how the measure is currently being handled. Only property owners in the county received a notice of the public hearing along with a card that allowed them to formally protest the additional parcel fee. As it’s currently proposed now, if the County calls for an election, only property owners could eventually vote on whether they want to pay the additional fee.
Knabe is asking for property owners to fill out a protest card in time for the Jan. 15 meeting of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. He explained that all voters should decide on the parcel fee, not just the property owners.
“My issue has been from the very beginning [is] that it should be on the ballot. To be open about it, what it’s intended to do,” Knabe said in a telephone interview Monday.
While much of Knabe’s public comments on his website have been critical of the currently-proposed ballot process, he acknowledges that the process is absolutely legal.
“I’m saying, ‘let’s do it the right way and let the voters decide in what they want for their own property and what they’re willing to pay for that, and sort of open up the issue for debate as to… what the Water Quality Control Board has created for cities and counties up and down the rivers,” Knabe added. He also recognized that it will be very difficult to get support from property owners to turn out against the measure.
He called the measure “a very expensive fix.”
The public works department spokesman acknowledged that it was recommended to have the parcel owners to vote by mail, but Lee said that “nothing is finalized” until the Board of Supervisors makes a final recommendation on how the measure would be handled. Lee also explained the reason why it was proposed to only have property owners vote. He said that Prop. 218 required them to look at the people who would be affected by the fee, and the fee is calculated on a parcel-by-parcel basis.
“It seemed appropriate to us to have them [the parcel owners] be the ones who weigh in on whether they would pay it or not,” Lee said.
There will be a recommendation to close the public hearing on the measure and take public comments at January’s meeting and answer any questions, according to Lee. He also went over the possible actions the Board of Supervisors can take.
“The Board could quash the measure, they could set a date for the election, or they could keep it open, but postpone [it] until past this fiscal year,” he said.
Property owners in LA County should have already received a notice in the mail, however Knabe’s office has extra copies of the notice of the upcoming public hearing along with a protest form at knabe.com .