A lawmaker from Lake Elsinore seeking to unseat Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster in the November election today denounced a county policy to assess fees on solar power companies.
"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-Lake Elsinore).
"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 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 the board's policy 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 the policy, which is
The industry groups are seeking to have the policy invalidated because, they argue, it amounts to a 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 the policy as necessary to compensate the county for the use of its resources.
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.