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Cam Noltemyer: Let’s play the stormwater pollution game

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: July 8, 2009 7:54 p.m.
Updated: July 9, 2009 4:30 a.m.
 
Many years ago, street sweeping used to be an activity carried on by all responsible cities and paid for by the general fund. Then the state passed its stormwater pollution runoff rule.  

The state was rightly concerned about trash, oil, asbestos from brake pads, bacteria from animal feces and other unwanted chemical and organic byproducts from our everyday lives washing into our local streams and rivers.

As anyone that has participated in a River Rally cleanup day knows, a tremendous amount of trash ends up in the Santa Clara River. Just imagine what goes down our storm drains that we don’t see.

For most cities, these waterways are the sources of the municipality’s drinking water. So, clean up what goes into the stream and the community’s water quality will be improved.

Cleanup costs money. Good street cleaning and drain maintenance is also a part of reducing stormwater pollution.

But the city of Santa Clarita already funded this last part out of its general fund.

When our city became subject to the requirements of the state-issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) stormwater regulations, they had a bright idea. Why not add a tax to property owners’ bills for stormwater cleanup and move all the street cleaning costs over to the new revenue source?

Now our city may be out of compliance with cleanup requirements and facilities such as trash traps or other capture devices that have not been built or are not sufficient, in spite of the added property tax. Per the city, the cost to the city for not complying with the NPDES permit could be as high as $25,000 per day per violation.  

And heaven knows what the city did with the increase in revenue they received from moving street cleaning into this new tax. Our tax bills got higher, while our services seem to have remained the same.

In an attempt to moderate such shenanigans, the voters passed Proposition 218. This law now requires a vote on new taxes such as this stormwater fee and mandates that any new parcel tax must equitably benefit the parcel that is proposed to be taxed.

In fact, such a vote was probably required for the original fee. But most cities, including ours, tried to ignore this requirement until citizen group litigation forced them to comply.

Is this why we are being asked to vote for this fee now?

According to the city, the new fee will pay for a portion of the program to comply with the NPDES permit. But the portion isn’t made clear on the information sent out by the city. Why doesn’t street cleaning come out of the general fund? Where are the needed new facilities?

The city claims if the charge is not approved the fee rate will not be reduced from $24 to $21.50 on an average-size parcel, since the benefit formula will not be recalculated.

The city than states that by voting for this tax, you will be adding a Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation cap, which means that any year there is an annual increase in the CPI they can raise your tax by the same amount without your approval — forever.

Is any slight decrease in one year’s tax-assessment worth that?

City officials state they cannot increase this new fee/assessment arbitrarily; it will be capped by inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). They carefully point out at this time inflation is 0 percent.

How many years has it been at 0 percent? A quick look at the Consumer Price Index provides this information. The last time we had an annual average CPI of 0 percent or lower was 1955. In 1980 the annual average CPI was 13 percent. If you average the annual CPI from 2001 to 2008, you get 2.83 percent. The 2008 annual average was 3.8 percent.

Didn’t the city use this same type of manipulation when they voted on the landscape maintenance districts? Guess they know it worked then; the public jumped at a chance to take a small, misleading reduction while saddling future generations with the increases.

There is no question that we need to clean up our storm water runoff. But with no guarantee that this tax will build the needed treatment facilities required to really make a difference or even a list of the proposed facilities, is this really the tax we want to support?

When you receive your ballot, how will you vote?

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) board member and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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