By Jon Coupal, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association
You’d think that with all the well deserved bad press heaped on the High Speed Rail debacle that Governor Brown would be a little more circumspect about mega-infrastructure projects which, presumably, he wishes to be the cornerstone of his legacy. Unfortunately, it appears that his legacy may be that of an inflexible politician who has saddled California with projects that are financially suspect and downright wasteful.
His latest adventure is the pursuit of the “Twin Tunnels,” a massively expensive water conveyance project. This project, part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), envisions two large tunnels 40 feet in diameter to take water from the Sacramento River and send it to the southern part of the San Joaquin delta to be connected with both the California Water Project and the Central Valley Project.
Not in dispute here is the notion that both water conveyance and ecological protection for the Delta are very important. Californians of all political stripes would agree with that. But just as all Californians would agree that transportation infrastructure needs to be improved, more and more citizens realize they were sold a bill of goods with High Speed Rail. The point here is that there is a right way to build things and a wrong way.
Part of building things the right way is to ensure that the project will meet the needs of California — whether that is a rail system that people will actually use, a bridge that won’t fail because of rusty bolts or a water conveyance system that actually improves water conveyance. And, of course, part of building things the right way is to ensure that they are financially viable.
In California, the policy for financing water projects is that water users should bear the financial burden. This makes sense. It means the participating water districts — both public and private — would pay for the project and collect water rate revenue from the consumers. But for the Twin Tunnels project, there is a real question about whether local water districts are willing to pay and, even if they are, would it generate sufficient dollars?
Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, in an April 11, 2014 letter to Secretary of the Resources Agency, John Laird, expressed our deep concerns about the viability of the project’s financing:
“There appear to be sufficient doubts among the participating water agencies as to question whether the projected revenue stream will be sufficient to fund this project. Moreover, even if the proposed twin tunnels provide adequate conveyance, what storage infrastructure will be developed for the water that is transferred south? Are taxpayers benefitting from any additional water in exchange for this investment? . . . These questions deserve greater discussion, and taxpayers should not be burdened with higher costs to fund the project because some agencies choose not to participate. Indeed, there are already indications that local property taxes may be seen by some as a ‘backstop’ in case water users are unwilling to pay.”
The concerns expressed in HJTA’s April 11th letter have only deepened. Media reports suggest that both the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District might be considering significant increases in property taxes to help fund Jerry Brown’s new boondoggle.
While troubling news for all those homeowners and businesses that pay property taxes, we are not without a political remedy. State politicians can’t raise this tax by themselves — they must be approved by the local districts. Typically, water agency boards consist of local elected officials within the boundaries of the water district. Therefore, business groups, homeowners associations and other interested parties must let these local water districts know that property taxes hikes are not acceptable. In short, they won’t see the light until they feel the heat.
Finally, we at HJTA believe that financing the Twin Tunnels using local property taxes is legally suspect. Should local elected officials approve this ill-advised property tax, the next stop may very well be the courtroom.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.