Pollution tax storm heads for L.A. County

This is Part 1 of a three-part series

Dec. 3, 2012

By Wayne Lusvardi

The tax climate forecast for Los Angeles County has turned gloomy. There is an $8 billion annual tax storm that is coming in 18 months. It will rain on every property owner in the county.

But the tax monies will mainly flow to a few politically connected groups and unions.  To comply with new state law, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works is proposing an annual parcel tax of $8 to $83 per single-family home.

Big box retailers will get a tax bill for $15,000 per year, in addition to their existing property taxes.  And commercial properties in downtown Los Angeles on impervious clay soils will get socked with a $200,000 added tax per year for storm water capture projects.

The parcel tax is being called necessary to comply with unfunded mandates of the federal Clean Water Act to prevent the downstream pollution of flood control outlets to beaches and artificial recreation lakes along flood control channels.  However, in 2010 the California Legislature enacted its own storm water cleanup law only for Los Angeles County, Assembly Bill 2554.

The remainder of the state has no such law.  This tips off voters that the real intent of the legislature is to create green jobs in L.A. County’s distressed unincorporated areas, which overlap the watershed area zones in the county’s storm water capture program.

Los Angeles County is complying with this new state law with its “Clean Water — Clean Beaches” Measure.  However, calling it a tax “measure” is a misnomer because there are no suitable limits or control mechanisms on how much would be spent under the current law.

Green Jobs Program Disguised as Storm Water Cleanup

On Nov. 9, the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board passed Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System Order MS4. It requires all 88 cities in the county to develop storm water clean up projects within the next 18 months.

The proposed $5 to $8 billion project will mandate that property owners pay a flat parcel tax unconnected with the market value of their property (not ad valorem or added value tax).  The tax is purportedly for many water detention basins to be constructed in unincorporated watershed areas and in each city instead of on a regional basis as they are today.

Fifty percent of the $8 billion in taxes will go to nine unelected watershed groups in the following watersheds to divvy up the proceeds for green jobs: Ballona Creek, Dominguez Channel, Upper Los Angeles River, Lower Los Angeles River, Rio Hondo, Upper San Gabriel River, Lower San Gabriel River, Santa Clara River, and Santa Monica Bay watersheds.

The Dominguez Watershed isn’t even a watershed, as it is supplied by imported treated water.  In other words, self-dealing tax lobbying groups will get half of the taxes and unelected regional forms of government will circumvent elected representative government.

The stated purpose of creating Watershed Groups is to provide jobs to residents in unincorporated areas with high proportions of low-income households. Funding shall be in the same proportion as the fees collected in each watershed area. The watershed groups will also constitute an additional layer of unnecessary government.

Los Angeles County Watersheds

Watersheds Square Miles Residential Commercial Industrial OpenSpace/Other
Ballona Creek Watershed

Source: Santa Monica Mtns.

Discharge: Marina Del Rey

Cities: Beverly Hills, Culver City, Inglewood, L.A., Santa Monica, West Hollywood

130 64% 8% 4% 17%
Dominguez Channel Watershed

Source: Imported treated water

Discharge: Wilmington Drain

Cities: Carson, Compton, Inglewood, Palos Verdes, Rolling Hills, Torrance, Ports of Long Beach/LA

(parkland & open space in short supply)

133 93% developed 7%
Los Angeles River Watershed

Source: Griffith Park

Discharge: Long Beach

Population: 9 million

Cities: Los Angeles, Long Beach, Wilmington

834 37% 8% 11% 44%
Rio Hondo Watershed

Source: San Gabriel Mtns.

Discharge: Whittier Narrows & Peck Road Water Conservation Park

143 N/A N/A N/A N/A
San Gabriel River Watershed

Source: San Gabriel Mtns.

Discharge: Whittier Narrows

Cities: Azusa, Covina, Baldwin Park, Cerritos, El Monte, Whittier, Pico Rivera, Downey, Cypress, Bell Flower, Norwalk, Long Beach, Seal Beach

713 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Santa Clara River Watershed

Source: San Gabriel Mtns.

Discharge: Ventura Harbor

Cities: Santa Clarita, small portion of Palmdale

Population: 252,000

Note: Area & river in mostly natural state


786 31.6% 2.6% 0.5% 57%
Santa Monica Bay Watershed

Source: Santa Monica Mtns

Discharge: Santa Monica Bay

Population: 1 million

87 44% 35% 6% Rural 35%;Other 11%


Anticipated controversial features of the proposed storm water parcel tax law include:

1. Forty percent of the tax proceeds will go to cities within the boundaries of the watershed district and to the County of Los Angeles for undefined water quality projects. Funding shall be proportional to the funds collected in each city.

Cities can also form Watershed Groups if they choose to do so. Ten percent of the tax proceeds will go toward planning and administration costs of the County Flood Control District. The 50-40-10 funding allocation of AB 2554 seems to be double the cost alternative to implement the project. Stated differently, only about half the $8 billion in taxes would probably go toward actual storm water cleanup facilities. The other half would go to unneeded artificial jobs programs.

2. Watershed Oversight Boards shall be created under Section 18.10 of the proposed County storm water ordinance to be composed of water quality experts drawn from academia, professional societies, and non-governmental agencies. In other words, a coalition of experts and alleged victims of water pollution shall be allowed to align against middle class taxpayers who will have to pay for the bulk of the tax.

3. The Flood Control District will be granted the power of eminent domain and be able to issue bonds backed by the tax revenues.

4. Sec. 2, Article 15 of the authorizing law grants power “to preserve, to enhance and to add recreational features to its properties.” The central mission of the county’s storm water program is to “promote the creation of green jobs.”

In other words, this will be another grab of money for green jobs programs and parks and recreation projects under the pretense of cleaning up contaminated water sources. The Santa Clara River Watershed is mostly in a natural state and is 57 percent open space and national forest.

5. There is no consideration in the tax for rainfall zones. Those who live in moderate rainfall zones — such as Long Beach — will be taxed just as much as those who live in, say, Pasadena and Altadena, located in higher rainfall zones near the San Gabriel Mountains. Pasadena gets 21 inches of rainfall on average each year.  This is eight more inches of rainfall than Long Beach, which gets about 13 inches.  Palmdale in the Santa Clara River Watershed gets about 7 inches of rainfall on average.

6.  Section 18.02 of the County’s proposed ordinance specifies a minimum tributary area of at least 100-acres in size (reflecting an area of about 350 homes). This suggests that storm water catch basins will be from 1-acre to 10-acres in size, depending on the imperviousness of the soils and the depth of the constructed basin.

A one-acre catch basin would take about four residential lots in land area; a 10-acre catch basin would take about 43 urban lots in area.  It will be difficult to find one to 10 acres of available land, except possibly existing parkland in critical catchment areas. A depressed area of a park can doubly serve as a catch basin.

But then this may raise the issue of creating toxic dumps in parks where children play. So privately owned lands will be more desirable. For example, a small 5.76-acre drainage area in urban San Diego required a 0.11-acre catch basin, which is about the size of one typical residential lot (65 feet by 110 feet).  The County’s 100-acre drainage areas would be at least 900 times larger and thus might have to take 900 residential lots (all engineering aspects considered the same).

7. Assuming an average home price of $350,000, a one-acre catch basin would result in about $1.5 million in property acquisition cost and $15,000 in lost tax base per year. A 10-acre catch basin would reflect $15 million in property acquisition cost and $150,000 in lost tax base per year. Taking vacant commercial land for catch basins would be about three times more costly and thus would reduce the tax base about three times greater.

8. There is no provision in the law for a tax appeal on the grounds that a specific property has no rainfall runoff as can be certified by a civil engineer.

9. A major source of bacterial contamination has been shown to be wet decaying vegetative material in roof rain gutters and street gutters.  City street trees are one of the main sources of this contamination. Deciduous ficus trees, with their shedding berries, seeds and leaves, are one of the worst offenders.

By contrast, evergreen trees and oak trees with waxy leaves and magnolia trees are examples of trees that shed fewer leaves but still provide a shade canopy.  Yet there are no projects proposed to reduce high-leaf shedding trees in storm water cleanup programs and replace them with trees that shed less.

And there is no provision to file for a tax exemption on the basis that a property owner has obtained a certificate from a third-party rain gutter maintenance company that their gutters have been cleaned annually (just like homeowners comply with brushfire weed abatement mandates).

10. If the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted to pass the storm water tax, then it would mail a ballot to every property owner in the county.  This would comply with the requirements of Proposition 218 for voter approval of any tax increase.  All property owners of public record would receive ballots. The Board of Supervisors may consider rejecting the tax if they receive a petition opposing the tax from 51 percent of property owners — which is unlikely due to cost and logistics.

11. There is no provision in the county’s law of long-term funding for the maintenance and removal of toxic substances that will accumulate in each storm water retention basin.

12. The county’s tax formula calls for higher taxes on properties with impervious soil where the water cannot percolate into the water table.

Type Development Percent Impervious Soil
Single family residential 21 to 45%
Multifamily residential 30 to 80%
Commercial 48 to 92%
Industrial 80 to 92%
Institutional 70 to 92%
Source: LA County Dept. Public Works Hydrology Manual, Chaps. 6-10

County officials stonewall

Officials of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works refused to confirm, deny or clarify any of the above features of the pending storm water parcel tax that are undisclosed on their website, but contained in AB 2554.

The key radical concept AB 2554 — unelected watershed councils of government replacing representative government — was shot down at the ballot box by the defeat of Proposition 31 on Nov. 6 by a 61 to 39 percent vote.

AB 2554 passed the state Senate on a 23 to 11 vote and passed the Assembly by a 50 to 27 vote in 2010, both by Democratic Party majorities. The sponsor of AB 2554 in 2010 was State Senator Julia Brownley, D-Oak Park.  She was elected as U.S. Representative for the 28th Congressional District on Nov. 6.

Storm Water Tax Schedule — Los Angeles County

Property Type Annual Stormwater Parcel Tax
Condominium $20
Single family residence $54
7-11 convenience store $300 to $400
Elementary school $8,000
Big box retailer (15 acres) $15,000
Commercial building in downtown Los Angeles with high clay soil content $200,000 or more
Sources:1. http://www.presstelegram.com/breakingnews/ci_22058804/l-county-proposes-water-fee-all-parcels-clean2. http://geosyntheticsmagazine.com/articles/0410_pan3_stormwater.html

In Part 2 of this series, a market alternative will be proposed to the big government jobs program and the tax and land grab of the county’s storm water parcel tax. Part 3 will update the legal issues of the proposed storm water tax now pending for a hearing by the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 6. 


Write a comment
  1. The DA
    The DA 3 December, 2012, 13:37

    So what’s new with all the government entities we have here in wonderful California? The average citizen has no idea how their wallet is being picked (or eventually going to be picked) under the guise of cleaning up pollution. We’re just suckers. There are no checks, no balances, and no end to the nefarious schemes being dreamed up by conservation-minded Democrats to funnel piles of money into carefully selected hands. If you interviewed 100 property owners at random and asked what they knew about this issue, I would be stunned if even one had the slightest inkling of what you were talking about. It’s just another multi-billion dollar boondoggle project flying under the radar. By the time everyone’s ass gets bit, it will be too late to do anything but “pony up” and grumble as the spirit of Robert Moses strikes again…..and again…..and again.

    Reply this comment
  2. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 3 December, 2012, 14:12

    And doncha love how the elementary school will be taxed……

    which will lead to more squawking about schools’ need for more tax revenue (and in this one isolated case, they have a point).

    Of course the big hits are reserved for commercial properties.

    Naww…..those fees won’t be passed on to the consumer….not a chance…….LOL LOL LOL…..

    Reply this comment
  3. Susan
    Susan 3 December, 2012, 14:13

    Well, I am eternally grateful to the author for covering this because I received today —- as other readers will have received today —- my Notice of Public Hearing from L.A. County for this “clean water, clean beaches” scam and now I know what it is REALLY all about. OUTRAGEOUS.

    Reply this comment
  4. Susan
    Susan 3 December, 2012, 14:29

    And yes, Jimmy, we just love it, don’t we!, that the elementary school will be hit with a parcel tax for this, which will then mean that the property owner paying taxes to the school will be double(triple?)-taxed, in addition to the school district then screaming for more taxes from property owners as you mention.
    And that’s the least of it! Take another look at the list of “anticipated controversial features” of this swindle.
    OH! It’s just one delightful surprise after another, every day there is something new, in this Golden California Progressive Age!

    Reply this comment
  5. Susan
    Susan 3 December, 2012, 15:01

    One more thing. On the bottom of page 3 of the County’s Notice of Public Hearing that property owners will be receiving this week there is a form you can immediately sign and return to the County to protest the parcel tax. Very simple, it will take two minutes. That is of course in addition to the opportunity to pepper them with letters of protest or even make an actual personal appearance at the public hearing in January. You might also want to consider printing out and making copies of the Calwatchdog article to hand out to all of your neighbors. And watch the so-called “partisan divide” disappear like magic….

    Reply this comment
  6. jimmydeeoc
    jimmydeeoc 3 December, 2012, 17:41

    Luckily I live in only-slightly more sane Orange County.

    The City of LA? The County? These were more or less nice places…..

    …………..in 1970.

    With few exceptions the whole joint is now a giant pissoir, as the French would say.

    Happily I have little need to venture north of Buena Park. Perhaps 5 or 6 times a year. That’s plenty.

    Reply this comment
  7. Hondo
    Hondo 3 December, 2012, 19:55

    Another reason for businesses to close up shop and move, or never come to LA to begin with. With a shrinking tax base, from whom are they supposed to collect taxes from?

    Reply this comment
  8. Dougo
    Dougo 3 December, 2012, 21:00

    We’ve already turned our front yard into a dessert, made our driveway water permeable and replaced our backyard grass with an organic garden. We’ve even given input to a local parks design which won it a grant for water reclamation construction. As you can see we are for clean water but this is ridiculous! Give the voter the choice on election day after the issues have been discussed. Forcing people to pay a tax on this will only make them more entitled to abuse and pollute! Can’t wait for the next two parts.

    Reply this comment
  9. doug
    doug 4 December, 2012, 09:47

    i, like susan received the “public hearing notice” from LA county yesterday.
    my parcel tax was determined to be $54 annually.

    the 2-color brochure cover looks like a piece of junk mail and can easily be tossed out amongst the local market flyers. be on the look out for it.

    thanks CalWatch for posting this article!

    Reply this comment
  10. Mark
    Mark 6 December, 2012, 09:07

    Another swindle job proposed by out of touch Government officials. They should leave the confines of their cushy offices and go out and check the economic weather. Small business are getting wacked. My tax bill for my small building is already a bloated 14K a year. If this measure passes it goes up almost 10%. This on top of the ridiculous separate surcharges we already pay to the sanitation dept and local city agencies. We are over taxed and over regulated while the rest of world plays by a totally different set of rules. How can America ever make anything other than a cup of coffee? Who speaks for small business and property owners? We keep hearing how we are so important to any recovery yet these type of measures just demonstrate how misrepresented we all our.

    Reply this comment
  11. doug
    doug 6 December, 2012, 09:55

    i have notified my neighborhood association about the flyer.
    we will be talking about it next week at our monthly meeting.

    thanks CalWatch!

    Reply this comment
  12. Brice
    Brice 6 December, 2012, 11:34

    I got my notice. I agree, at first glance, i thought it was junk mail. what i don’t like about this measure is that they aren’t collecting votes for the measure, but against it. which means that they assume people are for the measure and we have to take action to vote it down. the other disappointing thing about the process is that they have a public hearing during a regular work day 1/15/13 at 9:30am. Most people cannot take off work to file a complaint. So, they designed this whole process to minimize a negative public outcry.

    I’m for sustainability, but in today’s economy where i have no equity in my property, my company haven’t given cost of living increases, and i can barely keep up with the credit card payments, this is yet another burden i can do without, even though this will not be assessed until 2014-15.

    Reply this comment
  13. Joseph G. Tabares
    Joseph G. Tabares 13 December, 2012, 07:42

    I am not in favor of this new tax.

    Reply this comment
  14. Bill Holmes
    Bill Holmes 31 December, 2012, 10:12

    We got the notice and it says my Moms property that she has owned for 43 years (38 acres)is going to be taxed almost $18,000 per year, her property tax now is a bloated $6K and they want to add $18K on top ($24,000 per year) for a 78 year old woman living on Social Security.
    This is so wrong in so many ways as she will lose her property to the Goverment because there is no way she can afford $24,000 per year on Social Security.
    BTW, almost no water ever leaves her property as she has percolation ponds to catch the rain water, though the ponds have been dry for years.
    People, please protest this scam by Los Angeles County.
    Thank you.

    Reply this comment

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