A problem of credibility: Claremont’s Landscape and Lighting District fees?
By Dean McHenry, Jr.
At the next meeting of the city council, a “Public Hearing” will be held and a final decision will be made on the fees Claremont property owners will have to pay for the city’s landscape and lighting. The proposed increase is contained in the Engineer’s Report, which was approved without any discussion by the council members at last week’s council meeting.
In this era of increasing frustration with the actions and inactions of government at all levels, the fee issue is likely to bring anxiety even to those of us who support this form of taxation for landscaping and lighting in our parks and along our streets.
The Landscape and Lighting District (LLD) is a “benefit” district which divides those who “use” the landscape and lighting into 2 groups: property owners in Claremont and others who use or enjoy landscape and lighting in the city. The proportions each must pay are based on a subjective judgment of the benefits received. The former pay via their property tax bill, while the latter is paid out of the city’s general fund. Since the LLD was established, the proportion said to be a general benefit, i.e., that paid out of the general fund, was 30 percent in 1997 and has been reduced to 13 percent for 2012/13.
Most striking was a sudden decline in the proportion of the general benefit in 2010/11, when it fell to only half what it had been the previous year—from 34 percent in 2009/10 to 17 percent in 2010/11. It has continued to decline in the years since. The decline meant a shift of costs to property owners.
There has never been a reasonable explanation for the shift in benefits of the city’s landscape and lighting. Are fewer non-property owners driving the freeways, enjoying the streetlights and visiting the parks? To claim that the city wrongly apportioned the benefit for the prior 13 years in order to justify the change is not reasonable. What seems more likely is that, at a time of budget problems, the city sought a solution by simply cutting its expenditure for landscape and lighting and increased that of the property owner. Because this would violate the laws governing a benefit district, it is unlikely the city would admit to such a motivation for the change.
The credibility of both the city’s administration and its council are undermined by what it has been doing in the apportionment of the benefits of, and fees from, the LLD.
There are other problems with the Engineer’s Report which the city Council approved at its last meeting and which serves as the basis for the LLD assessment. Two examples are illustrative:
The Wilderness Park is nowhere mentioned, yet it is the largest park in Claremont and we know work is done to keep up the roads and portable toilets, to provide signage, and, recently, to cut weeds along the Cobal Canyon roadside. Why would it not be included?
A skeptical citizen might wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that up to 90 percent of its users are non-residents and this might incite questioning about the decreasing general benefits claimed.
Even where the report includes information that might be relevant to the district, questions about its completeness arise. “Sycamore” is listed as an “undeveloped” area, presumably referring to Sycamore Canyon. Yet, we know tree planting has gone on there in the last few years and a trail has been build connecting the Claraboya-East Pomello Road with the canyon. Thus, some development has taken place despite the fact that the entrance from the Thompson Creek Trail has been blocked for a long time and a sign has been placed at the entrance to the canyon indicating that it is closed to the public.
The city’s work in neither of these areas, though, can account for the shift of the benefits and, consequently, the fees passed on to Claremont property owners. We all benefit from our parks, lighting and landscaping. Yet, support for the LLD is bound to decline as Claremonters realize they are not being provided with honest and complete information—and that will be a shame.