Suit targets county fee hike funding organic recycling
A lawsuit seeking class-action status has been filed in Kern County Superior Court challenging landuse fee increases approved by the county Board of Supervisors in 2021 and 2022 partly to help fund local investments in state-mandated organic recycling.
The suit accuses the board of violating the state constitution by imposing what is effectively a tax that should have gone before voters for approval. It asks the court to order refunds for property owners who paid the fee as part of their tax bill without receiving a special benefit as required by law.
A key argument in the case is that the fee will pay for expenses unrelated to the county’s efforts to reduce methane emissions by building organic recycling operations such as a $13.6-million composting facility proposed next to the Shafter-Wasco Landfill.
“Our lawsuit alleges that Kern County is illegally charging all taxpaying residents millions of dollars to cover the expenses of cleaning up illegal dumping and encampments across the county,” stated Alex Wheeler, an attorney with the Lancaster-based Parris Law Firm, which filed the suit March 23, along with Bakersfield’s Law Office of Ralph B. Wegis, on behalf of Kern County resident Kirk Carlisle.
County government is named as a defendant in the suit, as is the Board of Supervisors and the Kern County Public Works Department.
County Counsel Margo Raison said by email Friday the matter is still under review. She declined to comment because the suit represents pending litigation.
In January 2022, county supervisors voted unanimously to raise gate fees, bin fees and land-use fees for property owners and commercial haulers to fund work the former head of Public Works said was needed to comply with 2016’s Senate Bill 1383. That law requires counties to reduce by three-quarters the
amount of organic waste sent to landfills.
The board’s action increased the land-use fee on property tax bills by 52% to $160 per year. The plan was to raise the fee by about 3 percent annually for the next six
years, until it reaches $180.
Carlisle’s complaint notes California voters approved Proposition 218 in 1996, restricting state and local governments’ ability to impose taxes and fees. Assessments such as the county’s landuse
fee, the suit says, can only be imposed in proportion to the special benefit conferred on individual properties. Otherwise, it says, such an assessment is either a general tax requiring approval by a majority vote of registered voters, or a special tax needing twothirds voter approval.
The suit goes on to say the Board of Supervisors raised the county’s property-based land use fee 27% in May 2021, but left gate or bin fees unchanged, as a way of increasing revenue for general clean-up services around the county.
Then, noting the board increased the fee again on Jan. 25, 2022, it alleges only a small share of the additional money generated was related to compliance with SB 1383.
It says the “overwhelming majority” of money to be raised by last year’s increase was “expressly aimed to compensate for prior deficit spending and dozens on dozens of general capital projects throughout the county that were unrelated to composting or SB 1383.”
The suit asks that the case be certified as a class action and that the defendants be enjoined from collecting land use fees in violation of the California Constitution It further requests payment of attorneys fees and court costs.