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Property Tax Hikes Without Voter Approval May Fund California Delta Water Tunnel Project

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California Aqueduct

Dos Amigos Pumping Plant on the California Aqueduct. (James Irwin/CBS)

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SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) — Funding for Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two massive tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to help transport water to Southern California may come from increased property taxes assessed on homeowners without a public vote.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District is exploring raising property taxes from $36 a year to $60 a year over the next decade to help pay for its expected share of the $25 billion project, expected to be around $228 million, paid between now and 2024, according to published reports.

Several other water agencies in California are also reportedly looking at raising property taxes to pay for the tunnel project.

While most property tax hikes require a two-thirds vote based on the state’s 1978 landmark Proposition 13, water districts can raise property taxes without a vote to pay for the costs associated with the State Water Project, which was approved in 1960. The State Water Project is the system of dams, aqueducts and canals that bring Delta water to the Central Valley and Southern California customers.

The tunnel project is designed to move water more easily from the Delta to existing aquaducts and rely less on pumps that are shut down often to protect endangered salmon and other fish. The plan also includes habitat restoration and creation of thousands of acres of tidal wetlands.

According to the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office:

Local water agencies can levy ad valorem rates above the 1 percent rate to pay their annual obligations for water deliveries from the State Water Project. State courts concluded that such costs were voter–approved debt because voters approved the construction, operation, and maintenance of the State Water Project in 1960. As a result, most water agencies that have contracts with the State Water Project levy a voter–approved debt rate.

Jim Fiedler, chief operating officer for the Santa Clara Valley Water District, told the San Jose Mercury News it was unclear how high property taxes could be raised if the Delta tunnel project ran into cost overruns. “That’s a good question. That’s a decision our board would make,” he told the Mercury News. “But it would be in public hearings, not behind closed doors.”

The California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), a frequent critic of the twin tunnel plan, claims many California residents will see their properties taxes and water rates spike should the twin tunnel plan go forward. “Few state citizens understand their properties can be so encumbered without a vote or even token input,” the group said in a statement released this week. “Unfortunately, they may be about to receive an object lesson in property taxation without representation.”

A total of 29 public agencies in Northern, Central and Southern California that purchase water from the State Water Project could conceivably raise taxes to pay for the tunnels without going to voters, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

 

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