Hurdling Infrastructure: How High Should the Bar Be?
After 20-plus years of lobbying for counties, quite often from the perspective of a public infrastructure project proponent, I’m astounded that any public projects are built or maintained given the many hurdles thrown in their way on both sides of the financial equation. State regulatory requirements and fees can add dramatically to the cost of local public works projects. And voter threshold requirements make it virtually impossible for counties to pass local fees and charges that could help pay for the added costs.
Especially for flood protection, stormwater services and groundwater management, counties have limited options for raising revenue to pay for these activities thanks to Proposition 218—which expanded the protection against property tax increases established by Proposition 13. Voters must approve new or increased assessments, charges or fees proposed by a stormwater management agency. Many counties and cities have found it very difficult and expensive to pass a successful Proposition 218 election. Instead, they rely on the local general funds/other funds which means competing with other critical services.
I should note that the Brown Administration has acknowledged this dilemma in various public venues and reports, including the Department of Water Resources’ Flood Future Report and the California Water Action Plan. Unfortunately, nothing concrete has been done to help resolve this on-going issue. In fact, the State continues to issue new rules and propose new fees that will make building, operating and maintaining important public projects more difficult and more expensive.
Case in point, the Administration’s proposal to establish a new fee to cover costs associated with the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (DFW) processing of California Endangered Species Act (CESA) incidental take permits. The proposed fee is on sliding scale related to cost of the project and is proposed at $7,500 for projects of less than $100k and $30,000 for projects over $500k. Additional fees of $10,000 can be required if needed and permit modifications can be up to $15,000. The fees could be imposed on a wide range of county projects including flood control, road and bridge work and water management activities. See our joint letter of opposition here.
To make matters worse, DFW recently issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that announced their intent to increase their Streambed Alternation Agreements by 129%. These agreements are required for activities such as road work and channel clearances that affect the natural flow of any river, stream or lake. While we don’t begrudge state agencies imposing fees to cover their costs, the cumulative effect of the new fee and the increased fee could result in some counties having to defer important public projects. See our comments on the Proposed Rulemaking here.
This piece is not intended to be a criticism of state environmental regulation. In fact, CSAC’s policy direction clearly recognizes the need to balance society’s needs with protecting and preserving the environment. My frustration lies in that local governments are often treated as just another stakeholder. State and Federal regulatory agencies have clear missions to protect natural resources, fish, wildlife and the environment. However, counties are more than just another stakeholder. Counties provide a wide range of public services, in some cases on behalf of the state, but local governments are sometimes treated like players from the opposing team.
With all this said, counties will continue to move forward with building, operating and maintaining local infrastructure and providing services that protect the public’s health and safety. However, it would be nice if they could move forward with such activities minus a few hurdles, plus new revenue raising options and with the full support of their counterparts in the relevant state agencies, the Legislature and the current and future Administrations.