Wed, Apr

LA County Measure W, aka The Rain Tax - Is It a Good Deal?  


EASTSIDER-This parcel tax was around before, in 2013. That time, it failed to go on the ballot in a 3-2 vote.

Now it’s back, this time on the Ballot based on a 4-1 vote by the LA County Board of Supervisors. Will it pass? Should it pass? 


Back in 2013, the Measure was called the “Clean Water Tax”, and it was highly contentious, as in packed Board of Supervisors meetings. Ultimately, it went down on a split vote after someone famously quipped, “God sends us rain and you figured out how to tax it.” 

This time out, the Board of Supervisors has come up with a spiffy definition of what the proposed tax will do. 

Shall an ordinance improving/protecting water quality; capturing rain/stormwater to increase safe drinking water supplies and prepare for future drought; protecting public health and marine life by reducing pollution, trash, toxins/plastics entering Los Angeles County waterways/bays/beaches.” 

Wow, with a description like this, who could not love the measure, even if it is a parcel tax? So many good deeds, indeed. As could be predicted, the LA Times is all in favor of the Measure. 

They cite the fact that LA County and its cities are already in violation of a bunch of federal laws on cleaning up all the nasty stuff in stormwater runoff that flows into the ocean, and this will both fix that as well as provide for new infrastructure projects. 

Also, as could be predicted, the LA Daily News urges a No vote. You can read the reasoning in the link provided. They didn’t like the old proposal and see this one as no better.

“Without a project list or a spending plan, Measure W is an invitation to pork-barrel spending and limitless expansion of taxpayer obligations. L.A. residents are paying enough in taxes and have too little to show for it. Vote no on Measure W.” 

Both sides agree that the number floating around is that “estimated median cost” for a residential property owner would be around $83/year, and that the Measure would generate in the range of $300 million dollars per year. 

The Devil’s in the Details 

In the so-called Impartial Analysis of the Measure, there is a serious indication that all is not as simple as advertised. Check out this sentence: 

“The Tax shall be levied at a rate of 2.5 cents per square foot of impermeable area, except as exempted.” 

Halt, tilt! What exactly is “impermeable area,” and what the heck is “except as exempted? To spare you the anguish, I have actually read the 17 or so pages of the “Proposed Ordinance of Measure W,” which you can find at the end of your Official Sample Ballot for the General Election, recently mailed out. 

First let’s look at Exemptions. In Sec.16.09, it means “including, but not limited to, government Parcels and Parcels owned by non-profit organizations...” Now I may be slow, but I’m betting that the majority of freeways, flood control channels, buildings, paved roadways, sidewalks, and the like are owned by public agencies. (These definitions can be found at Sec. 16.03.) So, this measure is really aimed at you and me, not the big-ticket baddies. 

Next, we find that there is going to be a “Regional Oversight Committee (ROC)”, created by the Board of Supervisors and who’s duties “include, but are not limited to, assessing whether the SCW Program purposes are being achieved.” Whatever that means. 

Also, there is going to be a “Watershed Area Steering Committee” for “each Watershed Area,” whose responsibilities include programming funding for the Regional Program. I can see all the appointed Committees now, buzzing away at something we know not. 

As to the millions of dollars per year at stake, (Sec. 16.04), 10% of the estimated $300 million goes to the Flood Control District for overhead costs, 40% goes to the municipalities within LA County, and 50% goes to actually run the projects and programs being authorized. 

Finally, there is going to be some faceless entity who goes out and decides exactly how much of your or my property is “Impermeable” and therefore subject to the parcel tax. If you wonder how fair and transparent this process will be, check out the appeals procedure: 

“16.08(C) The District shall establish and administer an appeals process to address and correct errors in the levy of the Special Parcel Tax. Parcel owners or any other person or entity subject to the Special Parcel Tax may seek review of the amount of their tax on the following grounds: 

1) Mathematical error in the calculation of the tax; or 

2) Significant discrepancy between the assessed and the actual Impermeable Area.”

Anyone want to bet the chances of a successful appeal? 

The Takeaway 

Notwithstanding all the lofty descriptions about all the good things that will happen, this Measure is not a Plan, it’s simply a framework for developing a Plan. The only guarantee is that we will be taxed at the rate of 2.5 cents per square foot of what the Flood Control District determines is “impermeable area” on each parcel of residential and commercial property in the County. And we know that the money will be divided up to a multiplicity of public agencies, using the 10/40/50 percent split I have previously described. 

Further, there is no guarantee that the amount collected will be $300 million dollars/yr., nor is there any guarantee that you and I will pay anything like $83/yr. for our lot. They are guesstimates with no available analysis as to the basis for the numbers. 

The appeals process is limited, with you and I having no ability to challenge the tax bill we get absent math error or a “significant discrepancy” as determined by those who developed your and my bill. 

So of course, the cities and the Flood Control District love the deal. It’s a new forever revenue stream for them. Duh. What’s not to like? 

If, after reading this article and checking out the references, you think that this is “a good thing,” vote yes. My personal view is that the proponents are betting that most voters will maybe take a look at the glowing description of all the great stuff that will happen if the measure passes and vote yes. 

Proof that voters really need to pay attention and read any proposed tax initiative before voting. 

We’ll see if this gets 2/3.


(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.


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