Riverside County sun tax debate

Sun tax could play a role in Supervisor's race

Riverside - An Inland Empire lawmaker seeking to unseat a
Riverside County supervisor in the November election today denounced a county
policy to assess fees on solar power companies seeking to do business in the
county, calling the effort "reckless" and a threat to jobs.
      "The backers of these renewable energy projects are asking the courts
for relief for what they believe to be an illegal tax masquerading as a fee,
and fear that this added cost ... could doom a number of projects and cause
them to move to other counties that are more competitive and job friendly,"
said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Murrieta.
      "Our region has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state; we
cannot afford to let overzealous county fees and regulations chase jobs away,"
said Jeffries, who is being termed out of office and is contesting Supervisor
Bob Buster in what's shaping up to be a tight race for his First District seat.
      Buster could not immediately be reached for comment.
      Jeffries acknowledged that developers should pay "for the impacts they
create on traffic, public safety and other infrastructure." But he said Board
Policy B-29 was the wrong way to go about it.
      "I can't imagine defending a policy of this nature, let alone spending
hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to defend it in the courtroom. It is
simply reckless," Jeffries said. "Trying to cash in on industries attempting
to create new jobs and investment in Riverside County is short-sighted. It
kills jobs and does nothing to protect our county from impacts."
      Buster joined his fellow board members last November in unanimously
approving B-29, which is the focus of a lawsuit filed by the Independent Energy
Producers Association and the Large-scale Solar Association.
      The industry groups are seeking to have the policy invalidated because,
they argue, it amounts to a "sun tax," and any tax must be approved by voters
under Proposition 26.
      The plaintiffs also allege the assessment violates the state Mitigation
Fee Act of 1987, which permits local agencies to charge developers a fee for
the use of public services. However, according to the law, the fee must
compensate for a specific project impact, and it must be reasonable.
      If neither of those standards is clearly met, the fee can be declared a
special tax, requiring voter approval.
      County officials have noted that solar projects consume space that might
otherwise be used for farming, recreation and housing. The supervisors have
defended B-29 as necessary to compensate the county for the use of its
      Around 20 solar projects are in the works, planned within a 118,000-acre
area extending east from Desert Center to Blythe.
      The policy requires that any solar power company -- with the exception
of those producing 20 megawatts or less -- enter into development agreements
and pay an annual $450 per-acre fee for access to public rights-of-way and for
altering desert landscapes.
      A trial on the lawsuit is slated for January.
      "Our elected leaders have a dual duty to both protect our hard-earned
tax dollars from any industry seeking to take improper or unethical advantage
of taxpayer subsidies, and to simultaneously allow the private sector to
flourish and create new jobs and clean energy free of excessive taxes and
regulations," Jeffries said.

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