While environmental organizations express strong support for the Safe, Clean Water Program (Measure W), a proposed parcel tax to fund projects to increase stormwater capture, organizations representing businesses and property owners oppose the initiative as it is set to appear on the November 6 ballot.
Developed by the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, the proposal would require property owners to pay 2.5 cents for each square foot of nonpermeable space. This includes concrete, pavement and roofs that keep stormwater and urban runoff from entering the earth. The tax would supply approximately $300 million for the construction and operation of projects such as water treatment wetlands, diversions to the sewer and increased vegetation on streets to capture stormwater, according to Steven Frasher, a public information officer with L.A. County Public Works.
Area organizations representing businesses and commercial property owners expressed three major issues with the tax. One is that the measure does not outline any specific projects or their associated costs. “There are no guaranteed projects, no objectives for capture, no timeline and no guarantees of what the money will pay for. It’s kind of like a blank check,” Los Angeles County Business Federation (BizFed) Advocacy Director D’Andre Valencia said. “That’s the heartache we have.”
Valencia clarified that BizFed is not opposed to a stormwater parcel tax in general, but opposes the measure in its current form. “The business community understands that we have to do our part, but we need the county to step up and give us some guarantees,” he said. Valencia added that taxes and fees were the biggest concern this year for the 715 companies that responded to BizFed’s annual poll of its member organizations.
Another point of contention is that the measure does not include a “dusk” or “sunset” clause that establishes an end to the tax or reduces its amount once the projects are completed. “This is a forever tax,” Valencia said. “We asked [the county] to include a “dusk” clause, where, over a certain time period, the overall money brought in from this will be reduced just to cover ongoing maintenance and operation.”
Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President Jeremy Harris voiced his agreement, but pushed for one step further. “When we take positions, if there’s going to be a tax, we like to see a sunset clause if we’re even going to remotely consider supporting it,” he said.
A provision in the measure specifies that the L.A. County Board of Supervisors plans to re-examine it after a period of up to 30 years, and evaluate whether the number of water treatment projects are sufficient.
The program allows property owners to apply for a credit under which they could receive up to 100% of the tax back if they implement changes to prevent runoff. But the third major issue that business advocacy organizations articulated was that the implementation process is arduous and comes at another cost to landowners. “Businesses applying have to recertify every two years,” Valencia explained. “Companies have to hire engineers to assess their lot and how it captures stormwater. This takes a lot of money and de-incentivizes people from going through the process.” Valencia added that BizFed had asked the county to extend the certification period to five years.
Bruce Reznik, the executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper, an organization that aims to protect L.A.’s inland and coastal waters, outlined the three main reasons why his organization supports the proposal. First, urban and stormwater runoff is the main source of pollution in local waterways, he noted. “It brings trash [and] toxins, and it puts the public health at risk,” he said. “Anything that reduces stormwater pollution is critically important to the health of our creeks, rivers and coastal waters.”
According to Reznik, L.A. Waterkeeper also supports the measure because, rather than focusing on cleaning stormwater runoff, it prioritizes capturing and reusing it. “Especially as our climate is changing – we’re going to heavier storms, to longer droughts – capturing stormwater is a really smart, cost-effective way to be more water-secure.” He estimated that each day about 100 million gallons of stormwater is wasted as runoff into streams, creeks and eventually into coastal waters.
Reznik said that Measure W also emphasizes solutions that bring additional value to the community. “Whether that’s creating more parks that can capture and infiltrate runoff, or greening our schools, homes and businesses, it offers so many benefits,” he said. “If there’s more nature that replaces our traditional concrete, it cools our communities, improves recreational opportunities, improves air quality and provides habitats for animals.”
L.A. Waterkeeper is part of OurWaterLA, a coalition of organizations across the county that is working toward securing a clean, reliable water supply. It is also a part of the Yes on W campaign, which aims to secure endorsements for the measure and educate elected officials and the community on its importance.
The Los Cerritos Wetlands Land Trust, a Long Beach-based organization dedicated to protecting the local wetlands, also backs the measure and is another member of OurWaterLA. “It will lessen the amount of polluted water that goes into our local rivers and then into our local wetlands,” Executive Director Elizabeth Lambe commented. “That will make the Los Cerritos Wetlands healthier and a better place for habitat.”
Lambe has sent e-mails to the organization’s members and advocates, a list that totals thousands, urging them to contact their representatives in support of the measure. “We’re a small group in one part of L.A., but we see its value and what it can do to protect the wetlands,” she said.
On August 21, the Long Beach City Council voted to support the measure. The amount of funding each city would receive is proportional to the amount of tax collected, and Long Beach stands to gain approximately $5 million per year, Diana Tang, the city’s manager of government affairs, said. Mayor Robert Garcia expressed his intention to vote in favor of it in November. “I think there’s a lot of benefit to a city on the coast and one that has two rivers that empty out into our waters,” he told the Business Journal.
Martha Cox-Nitikman, the vice president of public policy for the Building Owners and Managers Association of Greater L.A., questioned whether government officials understand where the tax may actually fall. “In commercial buildings, anything that’s a tax can be passed on to tenants,” she commented. “I think sometimes the city councils or the county supervisor misunderstand that the impact isn’t on the large building landlord; the impact is on an individual company. If you have a small company, and you’re trying to operate, by the time you have to pay this fee and this permit fee and the parcel tax . . . well, they just go on and on and on.”