Always Advocating Alan – The City of Santa Clarita’s Lighting and Landscape Assessment District Ballot
Vote NO, Vote NO, Vote NO.
There I was, ready to experience a very happy and merry holiday season, when the City of Santa Clarita placed a lump of coal in my mailbox, informing me of a proposed modification of my property’s Street Light Assessment, raising the rate from $12.38 per year to $81.71. The letter also informed me that a ballot was on the way, and sure enough, it did arrive, along with a load of extremely convoluted and confusing information. Why was information about Landscape Maintenance Districts (LMD) included? Little did I know, and the information sent to me did not include, if your property is subject to certain LMD costs as well, you would be voting on reducing your LMD assessment, in addition to accepting the Street Light Assessment increase for the entire Levy A Zone, all by casting a single ballot. This action makes no sense, and the only appropriate metaphor seems to be that the city is replacing their porch light by buying a new lawn mower.
Having prior experience looking into Proposition 218 Assessment Districts, I went straight to the city website to review the Landscaping and Lighting Engineers Report. This document is supposed to define the Assessment District, justify the special benefit to the properties included, and show how the money should be spent. Just because the city elected to show many different “Proposition 218 Assessment Districts” in one document and define them as “Zones,” does not change the way they are required to be managed. Each city-defined zone must be managed separately, and funding for one zone cannot be used for purposes other than was defined when the Zone (District) was created. We have heard our city council tell us many times, do not worry about Proposition 218 Assessment District funds, because they must be used for the purpose you voted for. Now is the time to see if the city council members will be true to the law, and their word.
Looking at the Landscape and Lighting District Engineers Report, page 15 shows how our lighting districts are currently funded. At the start of this Fiscal Year, the combined Streetlight and Traffic Light Districts had a surplus of $16,333,680, and anticipated collecting an additional $5,877,567 this year, all without raising assessment rates. Of that amount, $8,950,000 is being used to purchase Edison street lights. That amount is within $623,000 of the total purchase price as defined in the May 17, 2017 Agenda item 15, which authorized the purchase. In addition, the 2018 Engineers Report shows another $4,503,503 being transferred out of the fund to “who knows where.”
So, there was plenty of funding available to purchase the streetlights outright without going to the residents for more money. But a more important question is, where did the $4.5 million go? How is it appropriate to spend lighting district funds outside the lighting district?
Next comes the issue of the $2,811,046 of lighting district revenue from your General Property Tax, and $5,000 from County Signal Inspection. City staff is claiming this amount is a subsidy, but is it? The amount in question comes from the L.A. County Street Light District. Going on the L.A. County website, there are FAQ’s which deal with this subject. Besides, if Santa Clarita no longer uses those funds, do you think it will reduce your property tax bill? It will not, and your property tax bill will remain calculated at 1 percent of your assessed value, and the money will be used elsewhere. Therefore, paying for lighting out of the Levy A and B Special District instead of the L.A. County Lighting District is essentially another tax increase.
But the most infuriating part is the city attempting to influence the election by sending different ballots to homeowners who will be voting a reduction in their LMD assessment fees and claiming to “offset” the increase being added to the lighting district fee. If you read all the information carefully, you will find out that this is not such a good deal. Agenda Item 8 from November 13, 2018 tells part of the story. As disclosed, city staff decided to fund the LMD reductions by pulling “park maintenance” costs for 13 parks out of these LMDs, and “shift(ing) the cost into the Area Wide Zone that covers nearly the entire city.” Yet, the cost addition to the Area Wide Zone is not defined, and the increase will not be getting an “up down vote” by the residents affected.
There are also other ways, which some residents believe, the election is biased. First, on the Ballot Information Sheet, Section 7 Balloting Process, it states, “Ballots are weighted proportionally by each parcel’s assessment amount. (This means $1 = 1 vote).” Does this indicate the sum of the lighting assessment added, plus the LMD reduced assessment amount, will be used to determine each property owners vote? If your property is not in an LMD being modified, will your vote on the Lighting District Fee increase be overwhelmed by the extra “dollar votes” by property owners who also pay into an LMD?
The city FAQ answered the question, “If someone does not return his or her ballot, is it considered an automatic ‘Yes’ vote?” by stating, “the voting process is based solely on counting ballots that are returned.” But it is important to know both how the ballots will be counted, and how the decision will be made. Will the outcome be recognized based upon the ratio of “Yes vs. No” ballots returned, or will this be decided by counting the number of protest ballots (No Votes) and comparing the quantity against the number of potential votes?
Lastly, in past Assessment District elections, developers are able to cast votes based on the number of units in each entitlement they had been granted, even though the development had not been built. They do that with the understanding they would not have to pay the assessment until construction was complete. Therefore, developers do not have a reason to vote NO. The last time we experienced a similar Assessment Election process was in 2008, when all the LMDs were dissolved and reformed, along with new districts being established to pay for street medians. Those being provided reductions in assessment rates far outnumbered those being encumbered with new assessments. Not surprisingly, the ballot passed. At the time, Councilman Bob Kellar indicated he recognized the inequity, and vowed it would never happen again.
These and many other questions were asked during public participation at last Tuesday’s city council meeting, and the council members responding appeared confused and uninformed. If the council members did not fully understand this process, why was it initiated on the consent calendar and not openly discussed in public? The question is, who is minding the store, and who is deciding city policy? Using the figures in the December 13, 2017 staff report, purchasing the street lights will get the city a better electric rate, and by converting to LEDs, the cost of power per streetlight is reduced from $12.81 per month to $3.96. Based on a transfer of 16,125 streetlights to the city, the savings would amount to $1,712,475 per year in electricity alone.
If the City of Santa Clarita was truly interested in equalizing the streetlight assessment fee across all property owners, there would be a realistic analysis to determine the actual cost per property owner over time, which would initially reduce Levy B and increase Levy A, but neither assessment would be as high as currently proposed. In addition, the city’s FAQ indicates they will “pass along any future savings … amongst all property owners.” How and when it will happen should be disclosed, because the LED conversion alone represents a reduction of $24.81 per property owner per year, almost twice what Levy A is currently paying.
This information represents just the tip of the iceberg, and there will be more to come. In the meantime, the only way for Santa Clarita property owners to get a fair deal, is to stand up, vote NO, and be present at the January 8 city council meeting to voice concern. A NO vote will force the truth to be told, with the possibility of a fair election in the future. Lastly, vote NO to tell the city council to start doing the people’s business in public, instead of using the consent calendar.
I do not feel good about lighting the city’s lump of coal during the holiday season, but the election is on, and time is of the essence. So, after you finish mailing your ballot, sit back, think happy thoughts, and have a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.