California stormwater ‘fee’ bill should be flushed down the drain
|- SB 231 would redefine "sewer" to include stormwater runoff to avoid Proposition 218 requirements that voters must approve tax increases. The Star-News is against it.|
|The California capitol in Sacramento. (File photo) |
Senate Bill 231, set for a legislative hearing today, is the second attempt by Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, to pass a bill that redefines “sewer” to include stormwater.
It’s more than a matter of definition. It’s an attempt to evade the requirements of Proposition 218, which prevents local governments from calling taxes “fees” to get around Proposition 13’s provision that two-thirds of voters must approve tax increases.
Proposition 218 included an exception for increases to taxes, fees and assessments for trash, household water and sewer service. By redefining “sewer” to include stormwater, Hertzberg’s bill would allow local governments to pay for costly stormwater management projects simply by adding hundreds or thousands of dollars to property tax bills.
Taxpayers would have the opportunity for a protest vote, but unless a majority of them knew about the increases and mailed in their protests within the time limit, the charges would go into effect.
That’s clearly contrary to voters’ intentions, expressed time and again, to vote on any tax increases. Californians passed Proposition 13 in 1978 and Proposition 218 in 1996. Then, when some local governments overcharged for services and used the extra money for other expenses, voters passed Proposition 26, the “Stop Hidden Taxes Initiative,” in 2010.
Hertzberg’s bill also conflicts with the 2002 ruling in Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association v. City of Salinas, in which the state’s Sixth District Court of Appeal said the city could not add a charge for “stormwater runoff” to residents’ bills for sewer service.
Stormwater management for flood control, environmental protection and groundwater replenishment is very expensive. Further compliance with stormwater regulations will cost cities in Los Angeles County an estimated $20 billion. Where will the money come from? In the city of Glendora, officials calculated that, if a stormwater assessment was added to property tax bills, the per-parcel annual charge would average $1,200.
As with all public infrastructure, the question is one of responsibility, resources, costs and benefits. Should the federal government help to pay the cost of compliance with federal clean water standards? Should the state provide funding for cities to comply with state mandates? Should the cost of stormwater management be borne by property owners alone, or should all taxpayers be equally responsible? Do the regulations go too far and cost too much?
None of those questions are answered by SB231. It merely attempts to override the decision by the Court of Appeal so cities can charge the cost of stormwater management to taxpayers without calling it a tax, and without the approval of two-thirds of the voters.
That probably won’t stand up to a court challenge, so Hertzberg has also introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 4, which currently contains only placeholder language. This companion bill could provide the means to override Proposition 218 — and any other constitutional protections that require municipalities to set utility rates based on the cost of service, not for raising revenue or modifying behavior.
SB231 and SCA4 should circle the drain and disappear. Major infrastructure spending should be debated openly and in accordance with the express wishes of the voters that tax increases must be submitted to them for their approval.
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