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With facilities all over Los Angeles County, school districts protest stormwater parcel tax

The parcel tax pitched by LA county officials would keep stormwater out of the storm sewer system.
Molly Peterson/KPCC
The parcel tax pitched by LA county officials would keep stormwater out of the storm sewer system.

Southern California’s winter rains often drive swimmers and surfers away from beaches. Pollution levels rise. So does the risk of pinkeye. Los Angeles County officials want to cut pollutants by capturing runoff close to where it falls. They’d pay for it with a property tax.

The Los Angeles county flood control district proposes to raise $275 million a year. The county would spend half of it on regional pollution controls, use a small part for water testing, and give the rest to cities. The district’s Gary Hildebrand says the amount of pavement on your property would influence how much tax you'd pay.

“The way the fee is being addressed on a parcel by parcel basis is how much of the parcel is impermeable – how much of it is covered with hard surfaces,” Hildebrand says.

Stormwater carries chemicals, oil, heavy metals, bacteria and other pollutants into coastal waters because of people. Before urban development, rainfall soaked in where it fell. Now it bounces on hard surfaces on the way to storm drains, the way red rubber balls bounce on a playground.

A typical single family home would pay around $50 a year to mitigate this problem; a big box store, as much as $11,000. Nobody’s exempt. Even cities would pay.

Schools are big time property owners in every neighborhood – and they have protested the proposal. The county’s school districts would owe around $14 million a year.

“It’s a significant amount of money,” says Long Beach Unified School District spokesman Chris Eftychiou. Long Beach schools, would be on the hook for more than $700,000 annually, which amounts to funding for seven teachers with salaries and benefits.

“Or an entire program or another. And this is at a time when we’re cutting our budget even as we speak,” Eftychiou says.

Los Angeles Unified School District’s chief facility executive Mark Hovatter complains that the tax doesn’t take into account the work the LA Unified School District already does to phase out concrete and control runoff.

“We used to do a lot of pavement you know, it’s a lower maintenance, so all our playgrounds were paved," Hovatter says. "But our tendency now is not to go back and pave over but to go back and put in green spaces.”

New schools build in pollution controls from the beginning. Playa Vista Elementary, opened last fall, filters rain three ways before it’s used in the garden or released to nearby Ballona Creek.

“Through downspout filtering, every collection basin we have has a filter," Hovatter says. "And then we retain water before it flows into the system so we don’t over-flood the streets. There’s a filtering system set up in there.”

But most of LA Unified’s 800-plus facilities lack those sophisticated controls. Hovatter says his crews are working their way through retrofits and upgrades, like directing downspouts and grading pavement to trap rainfall where it falls.

“Every place it’s feasibly possible we have it sloped not off the campus but on the campus towards our vegetation,” Hovatter says.

County officials say they’re responding to the complaints. They’re trying to figure out whether schools might get some of the tax revenue back, says the flood control district’s Gary Hildebrand. Maybe for environmental education, he says. Maybe to accelerate the kind of work Hovatter’s talking about.

“We are having ongoing discussions with the schools to see how their abilities and the properties can fit into the program and see how the funding generated from the properties can overall fit in,” Hildebrand says.

Protests to the parcel tax from schools, homeowners, and cities go before the LA County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. Despite those protests, supervisors are likely to mail a ballot out to property owners on the stormwater tax this spring.