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From: Vol. 2, Issue 38, September 20-26, 2007

By Nathan Wright
San Clemente Times

With ballots mailed to property owners, the city hopes to renew the Clean Ocean Fee for another six years. Here’s the story behind the fee

A few hundred yards behind Tom Bonigut the waves crash against the San Clemente Pier. His attention, however, is not on the dozens of surfers enjoying the beautiful September morning. Instead, San Clemente’s Environmental Programs manager pries two manhole covers from the ground, revealing two shafts descending 20 feet. He points to a filtration system below the street. “You can see trash inside of it,” he says. “There’s a plastic bottle right there.” Five years ago that bottle would likely have continued through the city’s storm drain system to the Pacific Ocean, polluting the waters enjoyed by those dozen surfers riding the ocean swells one recent weekday morning and the hundreds of thousands of others who enter these waters every year. Today the bottle never reaches the ocean and is instead removed from the filter by a city crew.

The filtration system is a small part of San Clemente’s Clean Ocean Program, a city-run effort funded by a $1.8 million fee paid annually by property owners. This fee-approved by 57 percent of voters in 2002-was passed to clean urban runoff flowing through the city’s storm drain system and to upgrade and maintain that system. San Clemente is home to its own watershed, and all water that drains from the streets, gutters and landscaping flows through the city’s storm drain system to the ocean. The Clean Ocean Program’s mission is to keep that flow as clean as possible by removing pollutants from the water and by educating the public through awareness programs and citations to polluters.

The average homeowner pays $5 monthly to fund the program, while commercial real estate owners pay anywhere from $5 to more than $100 depending on the size of the property. The city uses this money to pay for infrastructure upgrades including storm drain filters and runoff treatment units, street cleaning, urban runoff ordinance enforcement, public education and maintenance for its storm drain system.

The city mailed ballots to property owners last week asking for a six-year extension to the fee, which is set to expire at the end of this year. “Five years ago property owners entrusted us with a $5 monthly fee and told us to get to work,” Bonigut says. “It’s my hope that they find we have delivered on that request and consider extending the fee. In late October we’ll find out how they feel.” Ballots are due October 18.

The Clean Ocean Program has paid for several upgrades to the city’s storm drain system, including four filtration systems at Calafia Beach, Mariposa Point and the Pier Bowl, which annually blocks 15 cubic yards of pollutants from reaching the Pacific. “To visualize that, picture one city dump truck with a capacity of 5 cubic yards,” says Bonigut. “We remove three of those every year from just those four units alone.” The city has also documented the removal of 4,000 tons of material from city streets by street sweepers, material that otherwise would be washed from the streets by rain or other runoff into the storm drain system.

Unfortunately for the city, the Clean Ocean Program’s two biggest projects at North Beach and Poche Beach are not finished and have yet to show the results of the time and money invested. These projects are designed to kill bacteria before it flows into the ocean. To accomplish this, the $3 million North Beach project reroutes water runoff away from the beach by piping the water to a nearby treatment plant. There the runoff will be treated and piped offshore along with the city’s other treated wastewater. As of this week the project is 70 percent done and is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

The $2.3 million Poche Beach project strives for the same goal as North Beach, but with a different method. Instead of pumping the millions of gallons of water from the storm water canal, the county is building an ultraviolet unit to kill bacteria. The Clean Ocean Program is paying for $500,000 of the $2.3 million construction price tag for the unit, and the city has agreed to pay $120,000-$150,000 annually for operation and maintenance of the unit whether the fee is continued or not. The same holds true for much of the city’s clean water effort: even if voters reject extending the fee, the city must continue, and pay for, most of the programs under way.

Under federal regulations spelled out in the Clean Water Act the city must maintain an environmentally sound runoff system. To meet these regulations, San Clemente must do everything in its power, within reason, to ensure that water runoff is safe. This includes blocking contaminated water from flowing into the ocean at Poche Beach, inspecting construction sites to ensure a contractor isn’t washing cement residue into the city’s storm drains and more. Failure to comply with these regulations results in hefty fines to the tune of $32,500 a day.

The efforts to remain in compliance require funding, and if the voters reject the continuance, the city will need to find other money to pay for these services and projects, which in turn would divert funds away from other projects and programs. Tough decisions hinge on the success of the ongoing election, a fact that isn’t lost on Bonigut. “If the fee is voted down, myself and city government will have some decisions to make,” he says.

Projecting the outcome to the mail-in election is difficult. Neither the city nor the San Clemente Clean Ocean Coalition, the organization formed by local citizens to promote the Clean Ocean Fee, have conducted phone polls to research how many will support the fee’s continuation. In fact, coalition spokesman Bill Hart says that polling was misleading in 2002 when the fee was first passed. “Our polls indicated much stronger support for it,” he says. “We’re not sure how many people who claimed to have voted for it actually did vote for it. Some may appear to vote for it, but secretly vote against it because they don’t think they can afford 16 cents a day.”

Few to date have publically opposed the continuation, and Hart isn’t aware of any organized opposition. Of more than 26,285 San Clemente property owners, only four spoke at the September 21 City Council public hearing about whether the fee extension should be put in front of voters. Ruben Casey spoke out against it, calling the fee a grossly unfair rate tacked on to commercial buildings, adding that he received no credit for installing a $10,000 filter. Raymond Sellan spoke in favor of the program, but requested the city supply an accounting for the money already collected in the five-year effort. Two men, Hart and Ken Nielson, also spoke in favor of the continuation.

The city also received 22 protest letters to the continuation from 18 property owners. Some say they hadn’t seen proof that the fee works, while others call it an unfair, unwanted tax. “The subject charge is an inequitable/unnecessary tax disguised as a fee,” writes John Crebs, who petitioned five times for five properties. “The money we have paid into this program over the past several years does not appear to have been spent properly, prudently, or wisely. It does not matter what you call it, this tax/fee is not warranted and is yet another unnecessary burden on the citizenry.” Crebs does not state how the money was misused.

The debate over tax versus fee is of utmost important to those who support and oppose the continuance. Under Proposition 13, new taxes must receive 66.6 percent of the vote to pass and become law. For a user fee, the vote requires only a simple majority, but the only citizens able to cast a ballot are those who own property within the city.

Bonigut has heard the complaints calling the program a tax, but disagrees. “People call it a tax and everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but it isn’t a tax in any sense of the word,” he says. “It’s a service, much like a property owner pays for sewer and water. There is water coming from their property and we need to deal with it.”

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