As City Clerk Carmen Brooks methodically tallied residential ballot-votes during last week’s July 14 Signal Hill City Council meeting, city officials were in for a surprise.
The list of those “against” increasing the California Crown district’s landscape-maintenance tax grew longer and longer as Brooks counted, with a final tally of 28 opposed and only 5 in favor.
“A majority protest has been reached,” Brooks announced, referring to California’s Prop 218 restriction on government agencies increasing fees without resident approval.
The City started maintaining common-area landscape maintenance for California Crown– a tract between Temple and Orizaba avenues, crossed by 20th Street– at the request of its developer in 1992. Though controversial at the time, most residents “rolled along” after initial opposition, City Attorney Dave Aleshire said.
“So this is quite surprising to have such a significant protest,” he said, adding that residents might change their minds if they understood the implications of not increasing the fees.
Public Works Director Kelli Tunnicliff said that city staff had actually conducted three separate community meetings this year on why fees needed to be increased to maintain the level of landscaping service the residents said they wanted.
Seven residents attended those meetings and expressed support for the fee increase, but they represent a small percentage of the area’s 90 residential lots, Tunnicliff said.
“We would need more of a dialogue,” she said. “We really need people to speak out and tell us what they’re priorities are.”
Most California Crown residents currently pay a basic landscape-maintenance fee of $613 annually. The 17 residential lots that have landscaping pay $767 per year.
However, even with an annual consumer-price index (CPI) increase, those fees are not enough to pay for escalating landscaping services. The district’s maintenance reserve-fund balance has been declining since 2016 and will eventually be completely depleted, Tunnicliff said.
The City’s proposal would have increased the tax by nearly 47% to $900 for basic lots and $1,125 for landscaped lots.
Now the City can only increase the tax by an annual CPI adjustment of 3.4%. If the council approves that increase after the next public hearing on July 28, most residents would pay an additional $21 per year and those with landscaped lots would pay an additional $26.
Without the higher assessment the City had budgeted for, it will face a shortfall of about $16,500, even with the CPI increase, Tunnicliff said. Though total tax revenue would add up to about $64,500, total expenses come to $81,000.
Maintenance costs for California Crown– or Lighting and Landscape Maintenance District No. 1 (LLMD), as the City calls it– will therefore need to be reduced by $16,500 per year.
“This may mean that services that were once performed weekly, such as mowing and edging, will now be performed twice monthly, and services such as pruning will now occur yearly as opposed to twice a year,” Tunnicliff told the Signal Tribune in an email this week.
“The City will look to residents of the LLMD for input and recommendations and strongly encourages the community to engage in the process.”
The City sent California Crown residents a notice dated July 17 that it will hold a virtual community meeting on July 27 to discuss which services should be cut.
Though contracted “lawn-care services” account for only $45,000 of the annual budget, residents also have to cover annual administrative-wage costs of $10,800, an engineer’s report of $4,000, water and electricity of $15,000 and supplies of $4,000, according to the notice.
Lawn care includes litter and leaf removal, weeding, mowing, edging, drainage and irrigation, and tree pruning and fertilizing, according to the engineer’s report.
Residents had asked last year for additional service to control growth on a slope between Sunset View and Crescent Drive that would have cost $16,200, the report states. A five-year paint-and-wall project would have cost another $10,600 for the year. Both projects are now cut from the budget.
The City had hosted previous community meetings on Oct. 14, 2019 and Feb. 19, April 16 and May 12, 2020, Tunnicliff told the Signal Tribune.
“Residents recommended the level of service proposed to Council, resulting in the necessity of a Prop 218 hearing to increase rates accordingly,” Tunnicliff recounted, adding that the City did not receive any comments or questions from the community in favor or against the rate increase after proposing it on May 12.
“We would have preferred additional LLMD residents to have attended any of the four meetings hosted by staff and council, or provided written feedback during the process,” Tunnicliff said. “We are hopeful more LLMD members will actively engage as we now work through the budget shortfall and the need to pare back services for the upcoming year.”
Engineering consultant Jeff Cooper speculated during the meeting that COVID-19 possibly disrupted resident engagement with the process and also caused them to vote against a higher assessment.
“People are concerned about the future and not in the mood to increase things,” he suggested.
Vice Mayor Tina Hansen said that the disconnect between the seven who supported the fee increase in the community meetings and the 28 who cast opposing ballots is nevertheless “problematic.”
City Manager Hannah Shin-Heydorn likened the protest vote to when the City advises the community about a project but no one objects until work begins.
“We’ll continue try and find other methods to engage,” she offered.
However, Mayor Robert Copeland said this is the way the democratic process is supposed to work.
“It’s a check by the public to make sure they really agree with what we’re doing,” he said. “It’s clear from these results that they don’t agree.”
However, Copeland concurred that residents might not realize the consequences of not increasing the tax.
“Maybe we should go back and have another discussion with them so they really know what’s going on,” he suggested.
Tunnicliff said that the community meeting on July 27 will do just that, and the council will conduct another public hearing during its regular July 28 meeting to approve the CPI increase and review the reduced scope of services.
Regardless of the hearing outcome, if all landscaping funds are eventually depleted, the City is not under any obligation to provide maintenance services to LLMD residents, Aleshire said.
“If they don’t want to impose an assessment on themselves, there ends up being no landscaping,” he said.
Copeland expressed optimism that residents will better understand the City’s position by the time of the public hearing next week.
“Thanks to the residents who cast their vote and made their voice heard,” he said. “Hopefully, if the City gets some information out and people understand the services they’re getting through this, we can reach a resolution at the July 28th city-council meeting.”
A California Crown neighborhood meeting to discuss landscaping will take place virtually at 1pm on July 27. Information is provided in a notice the City mailed to each resident. The next Signal Hill City Council meeting and public hearing will take place virtually at 7pm on July 28. To access and participate, visit http://www.cityofsignalhill.org/79/City-Council or click here.