Our View | Euphemisms, Misleading Letters and Streetlights

By The Signal Editorial Board

Governments like to use euphemisms. It makes things sound less onerous or gruesome than they are. For example, the military uses special reinforced coffins to transport the remains of soldiers killed in action. Those coffins? They’re called “transfer cases.”

On the lighter side, any time you hear a politician refer to something as a “revenue enhancement,” hold on to your wallet, because a revenue enhancement could also be known as a little something called a “tax.”

There’s been a little of that going on in Santa Clarita of late, and there’s bad news and good news. The bad news is, the city made a pretty egregious series of mistakes in its handling of a proposed tax hike to pay for streetlights.

But the good news is, it appears the city has learned from the mistakes and is poised to pull back from the proposal, for now, while it takes a mulligan on the communication and outreach to explain exactly what residents are being asked to do, and why.

It all started in late-November when the city sent letters asking 34,000 property owners to vote on — and we’re quoting here — “a proposed modification to the streetlight assessment for your property.”

Let’s review. What do you suppose “a proposed modification” to your streetlight assessment is? Where do you suppose you’ll be asked to do your part to cover the “modified streetlight assessment”?

Oh yes. Your property tax bill.

But you’ve got to admit, a “proposed modification to your streetlight assessment” sounds oh-so-much nicer than this: A proposed 560-percent increase on the taxes you pay to keep the streetlights on.

Indeed. That euphemism is SO much more innocuous sounding.

Further, in asking property owners to vote on the “proposed modification,” the city offered this explanation of what a “yes” vote and a “no” vote would mean:

“Marking the ballot ‘Yes’ will indicate you support maintaining streetlight services in your neighborhood and marking the ballot ‘No’ will indicate you are opposed.”

That’s perfect language if you are trying to sway the vote to a desired outcome. Because, after all, who among us would actually “oppose” having streetlights on at night?

That, however, is not exactly what a yes or a no vote really means in this case. What property owners were actually voting on is the proposed tax increase, which, for many, would raise the annual cost from $12.38 to $81.71.

Further, the ballots would be due on Jan. 22 — the same day as the only scheduled public hearing on the issue. If you got one of those letters, and you didn’t know any better, you might think you were being railroaded.

The appearance of an attempt at rigging the outcome was exacerbated by the fact that some residents were being asked to vote on both the streetlight tax increase and a decrease in their landscape maintenance fees — all in one vote, which would result in a net decrease in their taxes. Thus, this incentivizes a “yes” vote.

Fortunately, a lot of taxpayers saw right through it all, and they were rightly confused and angered by the letters from the city, and raised holy hell about it.

For many homeowners, it’s most likely more about the principles involved than the dollar amounts. But make no mistake: For those on a fixed income, such as many senior citizens, that increase from $12.38 to $81.71 is something they take seriously. You might look at it as equivalent to a few trips to Starbuck’s. They might look at it as a week’s groceries.

Regardless, people were steamed. It got even more interesting when residents went to a December City Council meeting to complain, and the council members themselves were perplexed by the letters.

“We need to do a better job of communicating this,” Mayor Pro Tem Cameron Smyth said. “If we have to spend additional dollars to send a follow-up mailer…something that is easy for a non-technical person to understand so they know clearly what they’re voting on, I think that is money well spent.”

Said Councilwoman Laurene Weste: “I got the ballot and was shocked. There’s just a real confusion and problem here. I need to see a lot more information and I need to understand it and our residents need to understand it.”

It turns out there is a somewhat reasonable rationale behind the proposed increase: As a result of annexations and streetlight rates being negotiated at different times for different portions of the city, some residents are paying more than others, and some are paying rates that haven’t changed in two decades.

Proposition 218 prohibits such disparities — everyone should be paying the same amount for streetlights, so, clearly, something has to change. However, with all the confusion, it remains unclear if the change being proposed is actually the change that’s needed.

To explain it all, the city added a “frequently asked questions” page on its website regarding the increase, but, to their credit, city officials have apparently recognized an FAQ page isn’t enough to unravel this mess.

Sometimes, you just have to punt.

And that is what the City Council is being asked to do when the council meets on Tuesday: The council will consider a recommendation from city staff to terminate the landscape and lighting district assessment proceedings and cancel the Jan. 22 public hearing — and then go back to the drawing board.

“The community has made it clear that additional outreach and information is necessary,” Mayor Marsha McLean says in the city’s press release announcing the staff recommendation. “The City Council’s consideration to cancel the proceedings and upcoming public hearing reflects the need we have to discover what kind of communication is needed to provide a better understanding of the entire process.”

We anticipate the council will vote 5-0 in favor of the recommendation, an appropriate response to the feedback the city received on the initial, poorly conceived communication. That’s what government should do: Listen to constituents, and respond appropriately.

Make no mistake: The proposed “modification to the streetlight assessment” will come back to property owners in some form. But this time, hopefully, the city will present it in a much more clear, concise and fair way.

The euphemism-free upshot?

The city stepped in it, but is owning the mistake and trying to make it right.

We respect that. 

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