If you're a property owner in Contra Costa County, you may be wondering about the envelope you received this past week marked "Official Ballot Enclosed."
It includes a ballot asking you to vote yes or no on an "annual clean water fee" that would go on your property tax bill. It's marked "Official Ballot," but the return address is not the county Elections Division. It's Carol Keane and Associates, CPA, 700 Ignacio Valley Road, Suite 360, in Walnut Creek.
"It's a strange animal," acknowledged Don Freitas, spokesman for the Contra Costa Clean Water Program, which is sponsoring the election. The county's Clean Water Program is a government entity created to combat water pollution and is managed by representatives of the county's 19 cities, the county government and the county's Flood Control & Water Conservation District.
The fee – which would range between $6 and $22 per year depending where you live and the size of your lot – is designed to assist local governments in meeting stricter requirements for storm run-off and thus help protect the water quality of local waterways and the Bay. All the money collected in each city would be spent in that city, according to the Clean Water Program.
The "2012 Community Clean Water Initiative" would raise an estimated $8.7 million annually and would expire in 10 years. The funding is needed to foot local government bills for "the cost of clean water and pollution control services and facilities needed to improve water quality and comply with federal and state regulations," according to the "Official Ballot Guide" mailed with the ballot.
Freitas said the reasons for the measure include the need to reduce pollution that makes eating fish out of the Bay dangerous from the run-off of mercury and other toxic chemicals.
"Part of our purpose is to reduce these types of pollutants from getting in and destroying fish and wildlife," he said. Also, he added, "manufacturing wants as clean as water as it can get."
The deadline for returning the ballots is April 6.
This type of election is not common, said Freitas, a former mayor Antioch. "It's only been used since 1996 about 10 to 12 times up and down the state of California."
It is authorized by state Proposition 218, sponsored by Howard Jarvis, the late anti-tax activist, and passed in 1996, Freitas said. Prop 218 became Article XIIIC and Article XIIID in the state Constitution, and this ballot, according to the Clean Water Program's Web site on the initiative is a "property-owner election" authorized and regulated by Article XIIID.
There are key differences between this type of election and a parcel-tax vote, such as the mail-in ballot measure approved by voters for Doctors Medical Center in November. The latter requires two-thirds of the votes to pass and is submitted to all registered voters by a local government's elections department. In a property-tax election, only property owners vote and the election is decided by a simple majority. The result in this case would be the same, an additional charge on property tax bills.
Also a property-tax election is not required to include some items found on ballot statements in ordinary elections, such as pro and con arguments. And counting ballots can be delegated to a private party, such as a certified public accountant, as is being done in this case, Freitas said.
The measure has three different annual rates depending on where you live. The list below shows the fee per parcel, except those smaller than 5,000 square feet, which would pay half the amounts shown below, Freitas said:
- Cities in west county watersheds (Hercules, Pinole, Richmond, and San Pablo) and unincorporated areas, including Kensington: $19
- Cities in central county watersheds (Clayton, Concord, Danville, El Cerrito, Lafayette, Martinez, Moraga, Orinda, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, San Ramon, and Walnut Creek): $22
- Cities in east county watersheds (Antioch, Brentwood, and Oakley) $12
County Supervisor John Gioia said the money raised wouldn't be enough to fully meet the tightened run-off standards being imposed by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, but that the rates proposed in the measure were viewed by the county Clean Water Program as more likely to win approval.
The Board of Supervisors earlier this month voted to approve the election. He said a county-wide property-owner election was selected in part because the alternative of city-by-city parcel-tax measures ran a high risk of several cities approving the hike at a time when several others rejected it.
Gioia said the last time a property-owner election was held in Contra Costa County that he recalls was an open-space initiative that failed more than a decade ago.
Freitas said anyone who would like to witness the counting of votes or has any questions about the initiative can call 925-313-2360.