INFRASTRUCTURE: Stormwater fee hike is set for election

A stormwater drain, part of an 81-mile network of pipes and drains within Manhattan Beach intended to keep polluted water from the ocean. Photo courtesy City of Manhattan Beach 

by Mark McDermott

Property owners in Manhattan Beach will vote on whether to increase the stormwater fees they pay from $19 annually to an average of $129 after City Council Tuesday night scheduled a mail-in ballot election to take place between late November and January 17. 

The council took the action somewhat reluctantly. The fee has not increased since 1996, while the cost of operating the City’s stormwater system —  the 81-mile network of pipes and drains required by state law to protect overflow from reaching the ocean —  has vastly increased. Over time, this has resulted in increasingly large subsidies from the City’s General Fund, including $6 million over the past five years and a projected $11.6 over the next six years if the fee is not changed. According to a staff report, the current fee generates $350,000 in revenue annually, while the operation and infrastructure improvement costs total $2.2 million each year. 

“This is necessary,” said Councilperson Steve Napolitano. “Nobody up here wants to raise fees or taxes or go ask the public for a lot more money.” 

Napolitano was on the council in 1996 that set the Stormwater fee. Proposition 218 was approved by California voters that same year, which required that all subsequent such fee increases be subjected to a public vote. Previously, cities were able to adjust such fees by a vote of city councils. 

“We thought, ‘Okay, we can handle this for a little while if it’s subsidized a little bit by the General Fund,” Napolitano said. “I’ll tell you, a lot has changed since 1996. I don’t know who’s paying the same or less for anything since 1996. I’m certainly not, but we aren’t either, certainly not with the Stormwater Fund….There’s a tipping point where it’s just too much out of that General Fund and it starts eroding the other things that we want to do.” 

Napolitano said the entire economic health of the City is at risk by the increasingly large subsidy. He said it will require tapping into economic reserves meant for emergencies, and endanger the City’s prized AAA bond rating, a measure of its economic health. 

“Then it affects the services we provide,” he said. “It means we have to do budget cuts for the things we already enjoy and we can’t expand on the things that people want expanded. Want more cops? It takes money. Want more firefighters? It takes money. Want cleaner parks? It takes money. It all takes money.” 

Councilperson Amy Howorth said that keeping the ocean clean is vital to everything Manhattan Beach is about. 

“This is really something that has to be done,” she said. “We all value the clean ocean, and it’s not just something that we like to say. A lot of our economy comes from our beautiful beaches and our beautiful ocean. So this is an investment not only in the quality of the ocean life but in our business economy and the quality of all our lives.” 

Mayor Pro Tem Joe Franklin likened it to the innate habit most people who live in Manhattan Beach possess to stoop down and pick up stray trash because they know it could otherwise end up in the ocean. 

“We’re very blessed to live by the ocean,” he said. “I just took a trip out of the country, and people know about Manhattan Beach all over the world, and what a great place it is, and a beautiful place. But with that privilege comes an obligation to keep it clean.” 

On Tuesday, the first hurdle was successfully cleared towards increasing the fee. As part of the Prop. 218 voting process, notices of the proposed fee increases were sent out in September to the city’s 13,012 parcel. Owners had until November 7 to mail back protests. As of November 6, 1,562 protests had been received, far short of the 6,506 needed to nix the election. 

Howorth made the motion to set the election, and in so doing changed the date votes must be received from January 5 to January 17. 

“I think that it’s better for the public because people can pay more attention to the information,” Howorth said. “Everybody’s pretty busy December, and I want people to have enough time to digest any information.” 

The City is not allowed to advocate any position with public funds but will send factual information to voters. A simple majority is required for the fee increase to pass. 

“Nobody likes to increase costs on residents,” Napolitano said. “No one sitting on this side of the dais wants to do that. Sometimes we have to ask…We will be asking the residents to support this so that we can maintain fiscal strength, keep our ocean clean, and address a problem that’s been kicked down the road for a long time. It needs to be addressed. We either pay now or we pay more later.” ER 


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