INFRASTRUCTURE: Proposed stormwater fee hikes move ahead

A stormwater drain keeps runoff from the ocean in Manhattan Beach. Photo courtesy City of Manhattan Beach 

by Mark McDermott 

The Manhattan Beach City Council on Tuesday night unanimously approved the initiation of a mail-in ballot process aimed at significantly increasing the stormwater fees paid by residents. 

If approved by over 50 percent of residents who cast ballots in a per-parcel vote, the stormwater fees would increase the fees paid by single-family residences from $19 a year to $129 a year, on average. The fee has not increased since 1996, while the cost of operating the City’s stormwater system —  which is required by state law and protects overflow from reaching the ocean —  has vastly increased. Over the past six years, the system has required over $1 million in annual subsidies from the City’s General Fund, including $1.6 million this year. That structural deficit is projected to increase to over $2 million a year over the next six years if the fee is not increased. Additionally, city staff has identified $8.3 million in repairs and improvements the stormwater system will require in coming years.

“None of us likes to pay more taxes and fees. But we have no choice,” said Councilman David Lesser. “We have to make these improvements to our stormwater system. These are not elective measures, they’re not feelgood measures….This is older infrastructure which is failing. We’re under obligation under federal, state, and county law to make these revisions and we have to do it and it’s taking an ever larger portion of our city budget to pay for this because there’s such a gap between the revenue we take in if we don’t address this growing hole. Our basic functions of the city are going to be impacted. We pay for our police, for our fire, for so many basic services, from the General Fund of our city, which is now propping up this fund to pay for stormwater.” 

Councilman Steve Napolitano said that if the fee was not increased the City’s financial health, and the services it provides, would be endangered. 

“If we’re going to maintain our AAA bond rating, if we’re going to maintain our public safety and hiring more firefighters and more employees and having good parks and clean beaches, we’re going to have to do this sooner rather than later,” Napolitano said. “And if we put it off, we’re just going to have to pay more later, so better to do it now.” 

In a staff presentation given in May, City Controller Julie Bondarchuk and Public Works Director Erick Lee talked about how critical a properly maintained stormwater system is for environmental protection. 

“We’re at the front door to the beach, and 85 percent of all the stormwater in the city goes directly into the Santa Monica Bay very quickly,” Lee said.

“With rainfall,  trash is carried into the storm drains along with the stormwater,” Bondarchuk said. “Therefore, an additional function of the stormwater fund is to prevent trash and debris from reaching surface waters like the ocean. The city created and currently maintains seven full capture systems to capture runoff debris carried into the storm drains. Additionally, mandates also limit the levels of bacteria and metals in runoff waters. Ideally, enterprise funds like the stormwater fund should be self-supporting where incoming revenues cover outgoing costs.”

On Tuesday night, a consultant presented the results of a resident survey regarding proposed increases to the fee. Timothy McLarney of TrueNorth Research said that residents showed strong support for the rate hike, particularly after being informed of what exactly the stormwater system does, and what it needs. The survey, based on 423 in-depth interviews with local residents, found support for the fee increase at around 60 percent — 62 percent when residents are given positive arguments, and 59 percent after they’ve heard negative arguments, such as that overall taxes and the cost of living in Manhattan Beach are too high. 

“What you find is a lot of these arguments resonate, and the one that is at the top of the list is the argument that most of the city storm drain pipes were installed more than 50 years ago and are starting to fail, creating sinkholes and flooding the damaged streets and private properties,” McLarney said. 

“I think these numbers suggest you should move forward,” he said, adding, “They indicated they’re willing to support. You’ve just got to put the work in, in terms of communications and outreach.”  

Residents will receive “protest notices” by September 22. If 50 percent file protests by November 7, the process will stop. If not, ballots will be mailed on November 17. Ballot tabulation and a public hearing will be scheduled for January 2, 2024, and if over 50 percent approval is reached, the increase will go into effect next year. 

Mayor Richard Montgomery suggested that the residents who have been vocal in their criticism of public safety in the City, several who spoke during public comments earlier in the evening and then left, should focus some of their attention on issues such as the stormwater fund because its subsidy threatens police funding. 

“We spent $8 million in the last five years propping this thing up,” he said. “It’s funny, it’s ironic, but those people who speak loudest for public safety disappear when it comes to things like this. Really, this is what you should be fighting for.” 

Mayor Pro tem Joe Franklin said it’s incumbent upon local residents to protect the ocean. 

“We live in a beautiful place by a beautiful ocean, a beautiful beach,” he said. “This is the price that we have to pay to keep it that way.” ER 


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