County voters might be faced with a new parcel tax or property-related fee in the future to help fund the rising costs of eliminating polluted stormwater from running into the Bay.
An actual ballot measure is still at least a year away if not longer and first requires enabling legislation by the state. However, the City/County Association of Governments of San Mateo County took preliminary steps by surveying residents about if they’d be willing to approve a new fee or tax and, if so, how much they’d be willing to pony up.
On Thursday, C/CAG formally accepted the feasibility study which, going forward, will help it decide whether to pursue the idea. Based on 22,000 written surveys and 800 by phone, the consultants recommend a property-related annual fee somewhere between $24 and $30. Such a fee only requires a simple majority of property owners compared to a parcel tax which needs two-thirds to pass.
While the fate of a possible fee remains up in the air, the need to fund stormwater pollution prevention is very concrete, said Matthew Fabry, program coordinator for C/CAG’s San Mateo Countywide Water Pollution Prevention Program.
The biggest pollutants in the Bay are trash, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) which contaminate fish consumed by humans. The more complex pollutants are helping drive up costs to keep them out of storm drains, Fabry said.
The Municipal Stormwater Permit issued by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board gives a 2022 deadline to end pollution in this area’s bodies of water, but no funding. Individual municipalities are left to develop long-term plans and bear the cost. Some cities have existing property assessments for the need but about half don’t, Fabry said.
If the deadline is not met, the cities and county face hefty fines of up to $10,000 per violation per day.
One challenge is convincing cities that they don’t have a choice — either get on board with a tax or fee or finding the funding from other sources.
“There are a lot of competing priorities and stormwater is not at the top of the list,” he said.
Individuals surveyed by True North Research found that 85 percent rated water quality protection as extremely or very important and 75 percent said the same about protecting the environment. Polling showed 62 percent of respondents supported a $35 a year parcel tax and 69 percent supported an annual rate of $17. The report ultimately concluded a specific fee of $24, which would need a simple majority to pass, had a good chance of success because 62 percent voiced support — 12 percent more than needed to pass.
Those responding to the survey strongly favored installing trash capture devices in storm drains followed by protecting clean drinking water from contamination and keeping trash and pollution off the shoreline and bodies of water.
C/CAG isn’t ready to move forward just yet, though. While individual cities and the county have taxing authority, the joint powers authority wants to avoid any legal ambiguity by using enabling legislation to let it also seek a fee or tax. Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, introduced two bills, one specific to C/CAG and the other more general for any JPA. The more general authority bill passed the Legislature and headed to the governor’s desk Thursday.
Once the authority is in place, C/CAG is also waiting for the release of the new draft revised stormwater permit which is issued in five-year increments. The permit is expected in early 2015 so Fabry said the best-case scenario would be heading to voters in fall 2015 at the earliest although 2016 is more realistic. While a parcel tax would be on the November ballot, a property-related fee can go to voters on an all-mail ballot at any time.
Fabry said the upcoming permit should highlight for the municipalities what their stormwater obligations are and offer an updated idea of just how big an effort is necessary.
Unlike sewer or garbage rates that can be increased without the will of the electorate, Fabry said stormwater needs are hampered by the voter mandate because there’s a limit to how much people will approve.
“Our needs are probably far greater than what people will be willing to support,” he said.
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