Replaces a Santa Clara Valley Water District parcel tax approved by voters in 2012 that was scheduled to sunset in 2028 with a similar parcel tax that has no sunset provision.
What the Measure Would Do
Measure S would raise approximately $45.5 million each year for Santa Clara Valley Water District’s (Valley Water’s) Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection Program by charging property owners about three-fifths of a cent per square foot of parcel.1 Residents of single-family homes, and multi-family homes with no more than four units, on parcels no larger than a quarter-acre, would pay $67.67 a year. This amount would be adjusted annually to account for inflation. Measure S, if approved, would repeal and replace the prior parcel tax of the same name.
The Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection Program would fund six priority areas over the first thirty years: public health and safety ($738 million), flood protection ($347 million), wildlife habitat ($248 million), improved water quality in waterways ($154 million), natural disaster resilience ($62 million), and reliable water supply ($37 million). The biggest projects funded by the renewal would be vegetation control and sediment removal in streams, maintenance of planting projects and invasive plant removal, and the Anderson Dam seismic retrofit.
Valley Water faces serious challenges to its built and natural water infrastructure. In February 2017, water overtopped Anderson Dam and caused flooding in the neighborhoods downstream. The flood caused $100 million in damage and forced 14,000 people to evacuate their homes.2
Climate models project that the “weather whiplash” of the past decade, such as the historic drought of 2012-2016 followed by the record rain and snowfall of 2017, will only grow more severe as the planet warms,3 exacerbating the problem of inadequate water infrastructure.
Measure S is similar to 2012 Measure B, which it replaces, except that it eliminates the sunset date. Proponents argue that an indefinite-term parcel tax would allow Valley Water to issue bonds to borrow against the parcel tax so they can quickly raise large amounts of capital to undertake major projects. However, eliminating a sunset provision reduces independent oversight for the program. Valley Water argues that appointing an independent monitoring committee addresses the need for oversight. But the committee makes recommendations to the Valley Water Board of Directors, and the board appoints the committee members.
Valley Water, a special district that provides wholesale water supply, groundwater management, flood protection and stream stewardship to Santa Clara County, placed Measure S on the ballot. The tax would be imposed on five of the district’s seven flood control zones, which is most of its land area. Valley Water collects slightly less than 10% of its annual budget from the parcel tax.4 The measure requires a two-thirds majority to pass.
Parcel taxes are considered regressive in that they impose a disproportionate burden on low-income homeowners. Measure S attempts to mitigate this problem by making the parcel tax proportionate to square footage, on the rationale that larger properties are more valuable and tend to have higher-income owners. Measure S also provides an exemption for low-income senior households. These measures are imperfect ways to make a parcel tax less regressive, but given the restrictions on property taxes imposed by California Proposition 13, they are the best tools available.
Parcel taxes are paid by property owners, not directly by renters. In Santa Clara County, as in California as a whole, about 70% of families below the poverty line are renters.5 Thus, parcel taxes are directly paid by only about a third of very low-income families.
Improved flood protection would benefit low-income communities of color that live in the highest-risk flood zones in Santa Clara County, such as along lower Coyote Creek and in the Alviso neighborhood.
A substantial portion of the program is also set aside for homeless encampment cleanups, which benefit quality of life in surrounding low-income neighborhoods but are disruptive to the people living in the camps. Valley Water has made an effort to partner with organizations, community representatives and unhoused people to mitigate the negative impacts of cleanups on camp residents to the extent possible.
- The funding will improve drinking water infrastructure resilience and restore natural habitat in Santa Clara County.
- Upgrades to Anderson Dam and reducing flood vulnerability along Coyote Creek are essential for safety of neighboring communities, many of which are low-income communities of color.
- With no sunset provision on the measure, the district can create long-term plans for safe water and flood control.
- Parcel taxes are regressive, although this one makes an effort to be as progressive as possible given legal limitations.
- The lack of a sunset provision means there’s no trigger for re-evaluation of the program by voters. A long sunset period, such as 30 years, would allow the district to issue bonds while retaining greater voter oversight.
The projects funded by the Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection Program are critical to safeguard built and natural infrastructure in Santa Clara County. Climate change is stressing the county’s aging flood control infrastructure, drinking water supplies and natural habitats. Building a resilient water infrastructure for the county will require greater local investment in the agencies that clean and restore waterways and protect communities from floods. From a good government perspective, SPUR would have preferred for Valley Water to seek a long extension rather than an indefinite one. But this preference is outweighed by the benefits of the Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection Program.
1. For a full program description and text of Measure S, see Santa Clara Valley Water District (2020) https://www.sccgov.org/sites/rov/Info/Nov2020/Documents/List%20of%20Loc…. The Safe, Clean Water and Natural Flood Protection Program.
2. Emily DeRuy. (2018). Coyote Creek victims sue a year after disastrous flood. The Mercury News. https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/02/17/a-year-after-devastating-coyote-creek-floods-some-victims-still-struggling/.
3. Swain, D. L., Langenbrunner, B., Neelin, J. D., & Hall, A. D. (2017). Increasing climate whiplash in 21st century California. AGUFM, 2017, A41K-02.
4. Santa Clara Valley Water District. (2020). Financial Overview (pp. 3-8).
5. American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates. “Table C17019: Poverty Status in the Past 12 Months of Families by Tenure.” US Census Bureau, 2019. https://data.census.gov/cedsci/table?q=tenure%20poverty&t=Housing&tid=ACSDT1Y2019.C17019&hidePreview=true.