Are L.A. officials mis-spending Bay Cleanup Funds?
Water bond projects flow slowly
More than two years after Los Angeles voters approved a $500 million water bond, only one project has been completed, others remain mired in bureaucracy and some environmentalists have begun to question city priorities.Passed overwhelmingly in November 2004, Measure O raised property taxes to fund projects designed to keep trash and pollutants out of the Los Angeles River and Santa Monica Bay
In return, voters were promised solid engineering solutions to the city's water pollution and innovative projects to create parks and green space while cleaning up tainted urban runoff.
Since the measure has passed, the City Council has approved $70 million for 10 projects and recommended $28 million for four others.
But only one project has been completed and just a few others have broken ground, frustrating some city leaders who want voters to see the impact of their dollars faster.
"For people like me and (Councilwoman) Janice (Hahn), as well, we have portions of our districts that have really been mired in serious runoff contamination problems and needing more green space," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who helped initiate the bond measure. "We have a real sense of urgency to get things proposed, funded and built because it takes so long to get public-funded projects built."
But some environmentalists on a Citizens Oversight Committee that reviews each bond project expressed satisfaction with the projects so far, but complained there is no master plan for spending or measuring projects' effectiveness.
And that has heightened concerns as the panel prepares to weigh two lake restorations that could suck up $200 million -- or 40 percent of the bond.
"The lack of a plan has been a real problem. They should have been working on a plan the day after the election," said Mark Gold, who is executive director of Heal the Bay and sits on the oversight committee.
Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley has proposed an overhaul of the process, including the passage of a master plan and selection criteria to guide funding.
"We want to be sure the money we're spending is really going toward improving water quality," Sutley said. "In anything like this, it's OK once you've been through the first round to take a deep breath and see what parts worked and what parts didn't." But even as the city wrestles with spending the water bond money, there already is growing concern that it will soon run out if not managed carefully or leveraged with state funds.
While a half-billion dollars sounds like a lot of cash, the estimated cost of cleaning the city's dirty water and polluted bay is $8 billion. Shahram Kharaghani, the city's stormwater program manager who is responsible for implementing the bond measure, said the measure helped the city meet some water-quality regulations. But Kharaghani said he'll need $100 million more to comply with trash and bacteria pollution limits.
And to meet upcoming water quality regulations, Los Angeles will need another bond or two -- which could be hard to persuade voters to approve if money from the first water bond isn't spent well.
"When we spend this money it's literally a drop in the bucket," said Francine Diamond, a member of the oversight committee.
"We're very serious about making sure the money is well spent. We want to be able to say to the voters (the city) did a good job and we're ready for another water bond." But the bond itself may be making that difficult.
Previous bonds raised taxes to build fire stations, libraries and animal shelters -- straightforward projects the city has handled hundreds of times. But Measure O had a more intangible mandate: Clean the water.
Los Angeles is crisscrossed with 7,300 miles of paved streets, littered with trash, stained with motor oil and fouled with pet waste, fertilizers and toxic chemicals. Rain and irrigation wash the muck into concrete drainage channels that carry it into the river and ocean. Under a 1999 settlement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups, Los Angeles has 13 years to meet more than 60 water quality regulations on trash, bacteria, metals, salts and other pollutants. The measure was designed to raise money to meet those regulations -- and the owner of a $350,000 home will pay about $34 annually over 20 years to fund it. But the ballot measure was deliberately vague because many of the water regulations aren't even written yet.
And it took a year just to appoint the administrative oversight, citizen's oversight committee and create basic project-selection standards to administer the bond money.
"This is uncharted territory. We took a real leap of faith as a municipality," said Council President Eric Garcetti, who helped draft the measure.
"Part of the risk of being first is you have to learn the technology.
"Now that we have some of the lessons from that, we should be able to spend the money a little more quickly and with less guesswork."
City leaders also wanted the bond measure to address community desires. So in 2005, the city asked environmental groups, neighborhood councils, city departments and governmental agencies for project ideas. They submitted 52 ideas that were whittled down to 22.
But from the beginning, there was uncertainty about what would qualify as a water project. And then community groups and nonprofits were expected to prepare detailed, technical proposals -- for free -- and hand them over to the city agencies for implementation.
Eventually, the city hired a consultant, CH2M Hill, to help groups develop concept reports -- at a cost of roughly $30,000 a piece -- with technical water quality analysis.
Stephanie Pincetl with UCLA's Institute of the Environment recently critiqued the first phase of the water bond measure and found a lack of order and unclear guidelines risk "increasing disillusionment with city government" and could hurt future water bonds.
"We don't want to use this money helter skelter, because this project seemed good and that project seemed good, but they didn't have the cumulative effect we need."