A man holding a microphone
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan has claimed the city faces $60,000 in daily fines per pollutant if homeless people aren't cleared from living along the waterways. But a water board official says potential penalties aren't that high. File photo.

State officials are contradicting claims made by San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan in his push to redirect affordable housing money to homeless sweeps and shelters.

Mahan has argued the city faces $60,000 in daily fines per pollutant if the city doesn’t address pollution from homeless encampments near creeks by June 2025. It’s driving his renewed push to reallocate affordable housing dollars from Measure E toward waterway encampment removals and services. But state officials say the amount being cited would only happen if the Environmental Protection Agency pursued enforcement action through the courts. The most the water board could fine the city is $10,000, but even then it reserves fines for severe violations.

“There is no basis for the $60,000 per day claim,” Thomas Mumley,  assistant executive officer at San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, told San José Spotlight. “A monetary penalty is not mandatory, it’s imposed at the discretion of a water board, and we typically do not pursue monetary penalties for local agencies unless a violation is egregious.”

Mahan has made that $60,000 penalty claim publicly, namely in an interview with KQED. It was repeated by two San Jose commissioners who dissented with a majority of the Housing and Community Development Commission when it voted last week to reject two Measure E reallocation proposals — shaped by Mahan’s March budget message on diverting Measure E affordable housing funds.

“Our office is not aware of any discrepancy in fines. This inquiry is best directed to the city attorney,” Seamus Gann, spokesperson for Mahan, told San José Spotlight.

City officials say the $60,000 number comes from federal guidelines.

“The Environmental Protection Agency’s website describes different enforcement avenues under the Clean Water Act. One avenue is for the court to award civil penalties,” Environmental Services Department spokesperson Jennie Hwang Loft told San José Spotlight.

City Budget Director Jim Shannon said the water board’s enforcement tools are only one component.

“Because the (San Jose City Council) must be informed about the risk to the city, the city attorney’s office has referenced the potential exposure of Clean Water Act violations,” he told San José Spotlight. “As initially enacted, the fine is $25,000/day/violation, but after adjusting for inflation, the amount is $66,712/day/violation.”

Mumley said the water board’s June 2025 deadline for cities to comply with trash pollution requirements applies more to discharges from city storm drains than it does to pollution from homeless camps near waterways.

“Municipalities are not required to eliminate creekside encampments, they are expected to manage trash discharges from them,” Mumley told San José Spotlight.

Housing Commissioner Roma Dawson opposed the Measure E reallocation proposals at last week’s meeting and asked city employees whether the potential to be fined $60,000 daily per pollutant was true. At the meeting, staff insisted it was.

Dawson questioned why long-term homelessness solutions have to be sacrificed. She said the city’s known about water pollution along Coyote Creek and the Guadalupe River for decades.

“I am absolutely stunned that the city could get it so wrong,” Dawson told San José Spotlight. “This is the point I was trying to make at the meeting last week. I’m really upset about this. I believe in the government. I believe profoundly in the City of San Jose. But this shakes one’s faith.”

Reporter Joyce Chu contributed to this story.

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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