Long Beach City Council leaders offer guarded support behind new water pollution measure

CJ Dablo
Staff Writer

A proposed measure from Los Angeles County that promises millions of dollars to fight against water pollution still faces a tough road ahead for final passage. The measure ultimately won the Long Beach Council’s approval last Tuesday, but it didn’t escape the scrutiny of city leaders. The Council approved a carefully crafted statement that threw support behind the Clean Water, Clean Beaches Measure and addressed some of its criticisms.
The measure promises funding to fight pollution from stormwater and urban runoff. If the measure is ultimately passed, Long Beach stands to receive about $5.1 million, according to the latest available numbers from the city manager’s office. The city manager’s report outlines the possibility for the City to also apply for nearly $29.7 million available from two watershed authority groups towards project and program funds.
It does come at a cost to property owners since the revenue will be generated through a parcel fee. According to the County’s website that addresses the measure, most homeowners would pay $54 per year or less. However, other kinds of property owners would pay a much steeper parcel fee. The Long Beach Unified School District will be required to pay a fee that is estimated to run upwards of about $715,000, according to a Dec. 18 report from Dr. James Novak, the chief business and financial officer for the school district. The City of Long Beach will also not be exempt from paying the parcel fee. Under the measure, the City will be required to pay about $1.66 million in fees, according to a staff report from the city manager’s office.
Dr. Suja Lowenthal, the councilmember who represents the second council district, stressed the urgency of supporting the measure before the County Board of Supervisors’ public hearing on the measure on Jan. 15. She amended the motion to direct the City manager to continue negotiations in order to ensure that the funds would be used for clean-water projects while “providing an appropriate funding mechanism” for incentive programs for schools, residences and businesses.
“We recognize that the school districts have a role in this issue and that there should be opportunities for residences and businesses to reduce their stormwater impact,” Lowenthal said Tuesday. “I believe this represents the best opportunity, truly, in generations for our shoreline, Long Beach’s shoreline, and marine habitat and for estuaries to thrive.”
Mayor Bob Foster acknowledged that Long Beach could have a clear advantage.
“Long Beach– if this is done correctly– will stand to benefit the most of any of the cities I know,” Foster told the Council Tuesday, “because if they do a proper job upstream of cleaning those rivers up and making sure stormwater is handled correctly, we will directly benefit by less debris, less bacteria, cleaner beaches, etc.”
However the mayor did voice concerns that the property owners could be paying the parcel fee indefinitely and that the ordinance could be changed since it was not going to be on the ballot.
Tom Modica, who serves as the director of government affairs and strategic initiatives for the City of Long Beach, acknowledged the mayor’s concerns. He said that the measure is required to provide 50 percent of the funding to watershed authority groups, 40 percent to the cities, and the remaining 10 percent to the County. Modica explained that this agreed-upon distribution could not change, but specific details could change before the ordinance is adopted.
“They will have [an] outline and program guidance that will be available for everyone to see what’s being funded,” Modica told the Council. “But the vote will occur, and then after the vote occurs, then the ordinance will be finalized…the ordinance could be changed in the future. It could have other things that are negotiated in it in the next couple of months, so it is an area of concern in that it’s a different process than what the County had originally intended.”
Fourth District Councilmember Patrick O’Donnell shared the mayor’s unease about the County’s possible changes. “I would love clean water, but I have some concerns about the County potentially moving the goal post here. Is there anything we can do tonight to potentially insure that they won’t move that goal post?”
At the mayor’s urging, the Council’s action to support the measure was further modified to reflect that the Council also requires that the County pass an ordinance before the fee goes to voters. It also requested that the ordinance reflect a “30-year sunset date and/or a stepdown mechanism.”
Only two residents spoke on the measure during the public-comment period. Both were against the measure.
“Anytime somebody wants money, put it on the homeowner, put it on a property owner,” said Wrigley resident Tom Stout. “It’s not fair. Everybody needs to participate, or nobody should have to participate.”
Another resident questioned whether the cost to comply with regulations was real.
“I think we’re doing a better job every year on cleaning up our environment,” said William Marley, a Carroll Park resident, “but these threats and threatened prices that they are going to come after us with, it’s beyond reasonable.”
Gerrie Schipske, who represents the fifth district, also criticized the measure.
“I would be hesitant to support an ordinance that clearly has not been discussed or deliberated in this body,” Schipske told the Council. She repeated other arguments against the measure that LA County Supervisor Don Knabe has voiced. Only property owners in the county received a notice of the public hearing, and only property owners were told they could formally protest the additional parcel fee. As it’s currently proposed, if the County calls for an election, only property owners could vote on whether they want to pay the parcel fee. Knabe has advocated on his website that all voters should decide on the fee in a general election, not just the property owners.
The Council voted 6-2 in favor of supporting the measure. Councilmembers Schipske and Al Austin voted against supporting the measure. Councilmember Gary DeLong was not present for the vote.
According to Kerjon Lee, a spokesperson for the county’s public works department, the County’s board of supervisors has some options at the public hearing on Jan. 15 when it discusses the measure and determines the number of protest votes. Lee said in an interview earlier this month that the board of supervisors could quash the measure, set an election date or keep the election open but postpone it until after the fiscal year.
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 public hearing and protest form at knabe.com . For more information on the measure itself, the county’s flood control district has set up an information line and website. Call (800) 218-0018 or go to lacountycleanwater.org .

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