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Unusual Mail Ballot for Clean Water in Contra Costa

Quite a few Contra Costa County property owners were puzzled this week when they received envelopes marked "Official Ballot Enclosed" for an election on a property tax add-on that is not being conducted by the elections department.

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.

Charles Burress (Editor) February 25, 2012 at 09:48 PM
They do have a Web site, which we linked to in our article: http://www.cccleanwater.org/cleanwaterinitiative/index.html. (You can get there also by clicking the link in the article, which is the blue-font phrase, "Clean Water Program's Web site on the initiative.") On using the money to pay fines, the "Official Ballot Guide" says, "Federal clean water mandates require local communities to pay large fines if creeks, reservoirs, lakes, the Delta and Bay are not cleaned up." I interpret this to mean that the new parcel fee is meant to help local governments avoid having to pay fines.
Tom Kirsch February 25, 2012 at 10:17 PM
My ballot shows an $11 dollar fee for my El Cerrito residence. Note that we already pay a tax for Clean Water. This initiative is for additional money to cover costs for additional chemical tests planned to ensure compliance with existing regulations. I was told that Regional Quality Water Board is planning to increase compliance enforcement of existing NPDES regulations in force since 1987.
Susan Wehrle February 25, 2012 at 11:55 PM
This looked good to me. We really need to clean up our creeks, wetlands, the Bay... The price of civilization is taxes, and clean water (and schools, libraries, senior centers, etc) = tremendously important to our well-being. (Wish folks-- and corporations -- could be less cavalier about throwing their trash where it doesn't belong.)
Dorothy Coakley February 26, 2012 at 04:01 AM
Ever the optimist, I took it as a good sign that El Cerrito was included as a "central county" city. My snobbish little nose will be held a little higher, to be in line with other high-falutin' nostrils from "Clayton, Concord, Danville, El Cerrito, Lafayette, Martinez, Moraga, Orinda, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, San Ramon, and Walnut Creek ". Exactly *why* EC is considered "central county" beats me. Only the nose knows ...
John Stashik February 26, 2012 at 07:01 AM
The people who back these taxes and fees are completely out of touch with reality. Vote NO! While politicians can afford new taxes, many of the 99% cannot. It's very difficult to pay any bills in this stinking economy with high unemployment (along with under-employment), sky high gas prices, plus ever increasing taxes which all make approving measures like this one impossible to justify. When things get better, we can vote for this one. Vote for Mom and apple pie, too; nobody is against all those things. For now: forget about it. Wait until the unfunded pension mess (local, area- and state-wide) increase the cost of merely surviving to the point where the middle class is completely tapped out. (You know the middle class: the ones that pay for EVERYTHING.) Keep squeezing more out of people here and they will eventually move away. Then funds will have to come from some of the folks getting a free ride now.
Dan Ringer-Barwick February 26, 2012 at 03:56 PM
One the one hand, I'm very happy to pay for environmental protections and other virtuous uses of tax dollars. Tax me, please! And let's crack down on the sources of contaminants in run-off too. On the other hand, these single-purpose fees and taxes are always problematic. One of the big problems with public finance in California is that it's so full of special-purpose fees and taxes that can't be used for the right thing at the right time. Isn't making those decisions the job of elected representatives? Isn't there a huge administrative overhead is keeping all earmarked fees and expenditures straight? Maybe it's just reality in California that we constantly have to do end-runs around anti-tax ideologues just to keep the infrastructure of civilization wired together. But that doesn't mean that these special fees are a good idea. But holding the line by voting "no" on a necessary environmental expenditure seems dumb too. Insight on this bind appreciated....
Valerie Snider February 26, 2012 at 07:12 PM
Susan, I agree that citizens should pay taxes - but there's a limit. Those "cavalier folks and corporations" should be fined for the pollution they create. When the law-abiders are taxed for the sins of the law-breakers, there is no incentive for the bad guys to clean up their act.
George February 26, 2012 at 08:51 PM
How can we get EC reclassified as West County so we can vote for the measure? As of now many in EC feel like voting against the measure. The measure does not appear to protect any streams in EC.
George February 26, 2012 at 09:01 PM
I'd appreciate a background story in the Patch. Interesting to read from the minutes on the water program site: A possible resolution: "Termination of Fee Process. Pursuant to the provisions of California Constitution Article XIII D, the Contra Costa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District shall not impose the Clean Water fee." "If a majority protest is not achieved, and the Board calls for an election, the election will cost approximately $526,500. The election costs will be paid by the participants of the Contra Costa Clean Water Program (CCCWP), which includes the Flood Control District, County and 19 cities and towns. The cost sharing in the CCCWP is based on population. **The District, which has no population, does not have a share**."
Regnad Kcin February 26, 2012 at 11:50 PM
"It is authorized by state Proposition 218, sponsored by Howard Jarvis" "Enough said. Forget about it." Right on. No one likes pollution, but an initiative to create yet another level of bureaucracy to line the pockets of, instead of fixing the problem with what he have, is not the solution.
George February 26, 2012 at 11:53 PM
yes, Charles, I think your interpretation is correct: "Failure to generate additional revenue to implement the mandatory requirements of the MRP could cause one or more of the twenty-one co-permittees to be found in non-compliance, which could result in fines (Administrative Civil Liabilities) of $10,000 per day being levied. The County’s share of fines levied by the Water Boards would be paid by the unincorporated County’s watershed program until funds are exhausted and then would have to be paid out of the General Fund."
Larry Craighill February 27, 2012 at 03:56 AM
This thread has completely missed the crucial point. As of last September new regulations went into effect that mandate water quality assurance programs. The mandate includes new guidelines for implementation, monitoring and reporting, and the fines for failing to meet the water quality standards are very tough. The standards and fines have been around for a while, but the guidelines for implementation were put into effect over two years ago with a grace period that expired in September. The point is, we can pay for our public works crews to implement, monitor and report, or we can pay the fines. If we choose to vote no on funding the work required by law already, they will either have to cut other public works to get the job done, or pay very stiff fines for failing to do so.
Giorgio C. February 27, 2012 at 04:31 AM
If I am going to pay more for stricter regs, then show me exactly what I am paying for citing data. Show me what compliance used to look like and what compliance will look like, citing the metric used for assessment. Show me the justification for the new regs. Show me what non-compliance looks like with some real data, not some fluff mailer that says nothing. This flyer-ballot was an insult to my intelligence.
Kathy A. February 27, 2012 at 05:28 AM
GC, go look at the website. there are regulations in place, and there are big fines for non-compliance. http://www.cccleanwater.org/cleanwaterinitiative/index.html click on through to agenda memo 02/07/12 [which is a pdf file]. you can vote for this small fee, or let the city take compliance costs (or hefty fines for non-compliance) out of other programs. your choice. my choice is to pay the very modest fee. i agree the flyer could have been more informative, but i don't like the idea of voting no out of pique, and then seeing other things cut in our city.
John Stashik February 27, 2012 at 08:29 AM
A point could be made that this is a case of politicians and bureaucrats running amok. To hit citizens with additional taxes and fees when so many people are simply trying to survive is an indication of how out of touch these rule makers are with the real world. People would be happy to pay for water quality (and all else) if they had the jobs and income to be able to afford it. When work is plentiful, wages are good, people spend money. It isn't that way today. Not everyone has extra money. So politicians and bureaucrats, who overall are compensated quite well for their efforts, come up with yet another need to hit people in the pocketbook. If the plan is rejected, then hit the people with fines. (That'll get 'em!) These standards and threatened fines can be delayed or dropped completely. Change the rules. The suffering public doesn't need this crap shoved down their throats in an effort to justify the jobs of whoever is making these rules up. Memo to regulators: show some concern for the less fortunate. We need more employment, good paying jobs, and then we taxpayers can happily fund ever increasing costs of government and its regulations. Until things improve, back off. Government regulators live in their own little world ignorant of the reality that the masses face daily in a lousy economy.
Larry Craighill February 27, 2012 at 02:31 PM
I do think the outreach has been a bit of a public relations failure. The regs are not difficult to comply with, and the fees are literally pennies a day per household. The implementation has resulted in this kind of expression of rancor which is more about taxes in general than about what the fees pay for. Kathy A. is right that the information is out there. The minimal cost has real benefit, but the process is not appreciated or well understood by the general public. For the record, before the Clean Water Act was voted in, uncontrolled fires on the Ohio River had occurred repeatedly. What they found after they first implemented the act however was that the vast majority of pollutants in waterways were simply coming off of the streets of our towns and cities. The products we use on our property, and sediments that bind them are regularly washed down the storm drains. This and the grime on our paved streets turned out to be the greatest source of pollution in our waterways. We've come a long way, and this is the latest step on that road.
Dorothy Coakley February 27, 2012 at 10:32 PM
I defer to my neighbor Larry, and agree that sediment from inappropriately applied products and/or construction projects seems to be our main pollutant. (We all seem to be pretty good about picking up litter even if we aren't the point of origin.) But I do have a problem with the categorization of *who* pays for *what." For instance, El Cerrito is downslope from Kensington at the Circle, next door to Berkeley at the Cerrito Creek. Adjacent to Albany (and its two schools) at the Plaza, and leapfrogs around San Pablo Avenue with addresses/property in Richmond. (Not to mention ECHS and Portola which are part of the WSCUSD and draw heavily from other cities in the area.) Equity suggests that our fees should not be higher than those of our neighboring cities or unincorporated areas. And reason suggests that *someone* let the drafters of this bill know that we are in West County and deserve accordingly lower fees. As for the material submitted to the voters by mail, not good. Not informative, not democratic, not confidence inspiring. Next time, I'm running over to chat with Larry *before* I cast a vote!
Toni Mayer February 28, 2012 at 12:23 AM
Thanks to Larry for the reasonable explanation and thanks to Dorothy for her observations about El Cerrito's proximity to other cities.
Gregg Visineau February 28, 2012 at 06:08 AM
This money will be "found" from one source or another: From the 2012 Community Clean Water Initiative; from General Funds at the expense of other worthy causes already targeted for them; from fines against non-complying jurisdictions; and/or from other "fees" or "taxes" to be assessed in some other (as yet unspecified) way. Not finding the money somehow, somewhere, anywhere, is NOT an option. The most informed, the most direct, say we have in allocating this funding (both the source of the funds -- us; and the use of the funds -- the CCCWP) is us, the affected (& benefited) property owners. The management of this ballot is a shambles, amateurish at best and uninformative at worst. Nonetheless, with a little effort -- which is after all our job in an enlightened democracy -- one can reach a reasoned decision on (1) whether to vote and (2) how to vote (yea or nay). As to the reference to Howard Jarvis [I am no supporter of nor apologist for Jarvis-Gann], it is to a mechanism for legally raising additional funds outside the constraints of Jarvis-Gann and shouldn't be viewed as an endorsement by Howard Jarvis or his ilk. Good luck in decision-making!
ann March 05, 2012 at 02:59 AM
Could not agree more, GC. I am voting NO!
ann March 05, 2012 at 03:06 AM
Kathy , we are voting no, because this IS a new Tax, without representation. 2) It is an unfair burden on the tax payers, once again. The County needs to stop spending elsewhere, to pay for this, or fight it. But I am sick of paying for the County's failing. Gioia should never have voted of this and he was quoted as saying so in the Times, last week. Death by a thousand cuts of that taxation knife.
Larry Craighill March 05, 2012 at 03:35 AM
Ann, Just be clear. A NO vote means cutting other services that our taxes currently pay for. The Clean Water Act requirements are already law, and they will be paid for one way or another. That ship sailed years ago, and the costs are now coming in. For those who seriously object to the costs of implementing the directive from the Regional Water Quality Board, this vote will not change them in any way.
Giorgio C. March 05, 2012 at 04:51 AM
Is the purpose of this tax really about keeping some public workers employed? I hope that is not the case. I'm a public employee, too, who has to justify my job position every single day as the budget hatchet falls. If the citizens no longer need my services, then I will seek work elsewhere, but I will not float a tax under false pretenses.
Giorgio C. March 05, 2012 at 04:53 AM
So this tax is really about "other things", not about clean water?
John Stashik March 05, 2012 at 07:31 AM
Clearly, the regulators who come up with these ideas can justify their positions. Politicians who approve a mail-in vote can also justify theirs. But that is not the point. We all love clean water, apple pie, and Chevys, too. However, before shoving this down the throats of those permitted to actually vote, some consideration ought to be given to the ability of people to pay. Yes, this costs real money. The low income and out of work elements of our society will pay, pay and pay, because there are no exceptions. A decent thing to do would be to delay this tax until people are on their feet again. Memo to regulators and politicians: times are still tough. Give the public a break. (That is not in their nature.)
Giorgio C. March 05, 2012 at 01:56 PM
With so many folks being out of work or taking significant pay cuts or paying increased health costs, floating such a tax is evidence of a huge disconnect between those who proposed-approved it and the citizens who are expected to cough up more and more dollars for their hospitals (Doctors Med Center), their police, their fire fighters, and their schools. At the state agency where I work, we had previously been told to try to do more with less. Recently, the latest message was "do less with less." Less employees, less resources equals less services. California is in a serious economic crisis. Until things improve, do less with less.
Dick Lapierre March 25, 2012 at 07:06 PM
Nice thinking, John! You make it look like we don't need to do anything. If we vote yes, everyone moves away, the pollution stops and our water sources will refresh themselves. On the other hand, if we vote no, we get hit with huge fines, everyone moves away, and the pollution stops again. If we avoid the fines and don't stop the pollution, everyone gets sick, dies, and the pollution stops again. You've really got a head on your shoulders, fellow. Tell you what, I'll be happy to send you $20 of my hard-earned money if you promise to shut up.
Dick Lapierre March 25, 2012 at 07:11 PM
John, you've really got to stop watching so much Fox News. Or has your brain been rotted out by polluted water?
John Stashik March 25, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Dick, you're fortunate to be well off, with the means to pay. Not everyone has that kind of money these days. Count your blessings. For those who cannot afford the tax, they're screwed. There would be no problem with delaying the entire process until some people can get back on their feet financially; the world will not end. >>Dick Lapierre 12:06 pm on Sunday, March 25, 2012 Nice thinking, John! You make it look like we don't need to do anything. If we vote yes, everyone moves away, the pollution stops and our water sources will refresh themselves. On the other hand, if we vote no, we get hit with huge fines, everyone moves away, and the pollution stops again. If we avoid the fines and don't stop the pollution, everyone gets sick, dies, and the pollution stops again. You've really got a head on your shoulders, fellow. Tell you what, I'll be happy to send you $20 of my hard-earned money if you promise to shut up.<<<
Larry Craighill March 26, 2012 at 01:59 AM
"Dick, you're fortunate to be well off". I just want to remind our readers that this is 2$ a month for property owners........ Let's try this again..... $2 a month for property owners. Delaying the process is not on the table. The laws were passed years ago, and the regulations went into effect almost two and a half years ago. Two dollars a month from each property owner or the public works department will cut services to focus on the task. Failure to do so costs the community $10,000 a day. The hyperbole in this thread is truly unreal, and does not speak well of our community.

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