What’s the Fix for San Diego’s Crumbling Infrastructure?

by on January 23, 2015 · 2 comments

in Culture, Economy, Environment, History, Labor, Politics, San Diego

infrastructure sdBy Doug Porter

Pssst! Got a spare two billion dollars? That’s a number being talked about in the search for a comprehensive approach to fixing San Diego’s deteriorating streets, pipes and public spaces.

The City of San Diego has issued a report outlining what it says are our infrastructure needs over the next five years, and it isn’t pretty. Our roads are falling apart. Public buildings like libraries and fire stations have repair needs that are mounting faster than the city can pay for them.

I’m told discussions about how to sell taxpayers on paying for this among the city’s big time players (led by the Chamber of Commerce) are already underway. While I don’t dispute the need to upgrade the bones of this city, whatever deal emerges to sell us on paying for it needs to include a whole lotta people who’ve been getting the short end of the stick lately.

Past mega-deals have borrowed from Peter (pension funds) to pay Paul (the 1996 GOP Convention, Petco Park). Right now the city is hocking public property (borrowing against the value of buildings) just to keep up with the most urgently needed repairs on our potholed roads and bursting water mains. This, according to the city’s independent budget analyst, is unsustainable.

The price for San Diego’s needed infrastructure repairs covered in the report comes to $3.87 Billion. With a “B.” About two thirds of that money could be found via existing revenue sources over a period of time, which leaves a billion plus unfunded.

These unmet and mostly unfunded needs don’t include the 20% of all sidewalks that are crumbling, the Parks Master Plan, sea walls likely needed to cope with rising waters, or even the latest streets assessment. So City Councilman Todd Gloria thinks the magic number required for the fixes is really more like $2 billion.

And that’s before considering shiny new toys desired by the city’s moneyed set like a stadium or convention center expansion.

The Man With a Plan Emerges

City Councilman Mark Kersey let it drop on twitter yesterday that he’d like to explore getting that funding through a 2016 ballot measure. The civicly-minded twitterati on my feed approved.

From the Times of San Diego:

A plan to fund billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in San Diego could go before voters next year, Councilman Mark Kersey said Wednesday.

The plan to fund capital projects would join a crowded 2016 ballot, which is likely to include measures to raise the minimum wage, comprehensively amend the City Charter, and build a stadium for the Chargers. The 2016 election year will also include a vote for mayor and four City Council seats — one of which is expected to be a dogfight.

At a meeting of the City Council’s Infrastructure Committee,which he chairs, Kersey said his main goal for this year is to develop a financing plan to put before voters.

Getting a City Councilman on the right side of the aisle to lead the charge (involving voter approval) seems like a good idea. Kersey seems like a good enough guy for a Republican, and he’s earned credibility when it comes to understanding what needs to be done. Think of it as being like Nixon going to China–no Democrat would have dared to do it, but a Republican making his kind of move is bold and brilliant.

There’s a tough road to hoe ahead. Spending additional money by way of the taxpayers for just about anything requires a ? voter approval. Getting that level of support requires a coalition of just about everybody with an interest in politics to work together.

Maybe people have forgotten then-Mayor Jerry Sanders shilling for a small local sales tax increase and getting his ass handed to him on election day. If I was conspiracy-minded, I might even think Proposition D was just a cynical ploy to placate critics of the city’s tightwad financial policies. But the fact remains Carl DeMaio and his league of doomsday advocates weren’t on board.

The case for spending on needed infrastructure can be made. People can see potholes and water mains bursting. However, reversing decades of local propaganda against taxes and government isn’t going to be so easy, even if the reality is that spending on infrastructure is really, really good for the local economy.

Proponents of any bond measure will insist it be a non-partisan civic exercise. I have no doubt the leadership of both local political parties will be on board.

Normally when the “community” is facing a major financial commitment, various forces come together to do a little horse trading, particularly once the parameters of the proposition are determined and some basic polling has been done.

Deals get struck, promises get made, and a united front emerges to sell the deal. That’s how the Padres stadium got built. But it only takes a few squeaky wheels to derail a campaign.

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association (which is really just a farm team for local Republicans) will be brought on board after the appropriate amount of hemming and hawing.

Democratic City Councilman Todd Gloria, the man Voice of San Diego dubbed as “the voice for a progressive San Diego” has already issued a press release supporting the concept. He’s been trying to get this done for years, so there’s no surprise there.

Organized labor and a few well-known litigious-minded citizen advocates will be asked (or are already at) the table. I know the lure of good jobs from a multi-year investment in infrastructure will be a powerful lure for trade unions.

There’s been a lot of talk both at the national and the local level in organized labor about movement building lately. Groups that have nothing to do with workplace organizing are being included in high level conferences on domestic policy. I’ve even heard reports the local labor council is inclined to look beyond candidate support as a means for advancing their cause. I even get press releases from the AFL-CIO national office these days.

Bad Blood in Politics

We’ve had three years of increasingly dirty politics aimed at defending the interests of San Diego’s monied set. Funding for low income housing, the Barrio Logan Community Plan and a city council approved minimum wage are just the most obvious examples. There are a lot of negative feelings towards the ‘establishment’ in activist circles these days.

Although no serious player in local finance or politics will publicly question the need for a ballot measure as long as they’re part of the deal, such a situation does offer up the opportunity to ask for concessions aimed at the large number of people in this city for whom the “economic recovery” is not happening.

The key word there is “publicly.”

I am aware of polling showing that a big majority of voters would be opposed to a ballot measure to pay for infrastructure. People believe our politicians are irresponsible and should be punished before any funds are doled out and, if funds are handed out, they must have strong, very strong oversight mechanisms.

Voters don’t care if the total is $2 or $20 Billion. They care how much will it cost them…How much will my property/sales/water/gas bill go up? Do I really want to spend $200/$450/$700 a yr to pave the streets or build a Charger Stadium?

From KPBS:

In a separate report to the [Council Infrastructure] committee, the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst outlined possible ways to raise revenue to close the funding gaps.

The ideas include:

  • A 0.25 percent increase in the 8 percent sales tax to bring in an estimated $64 million annually.
  • A 1 percent increase in the 10.5 percent hotel room tax to gain around $16.6 million a year.
  • Instituting a 10 percent levy on paid parking lots, which could generate $38 million yearly.
  • Raising the 95 cent monthly stormwater fee on property owners by $5, for $24.3 million annually.
  • Repealing an ordinance that requires free curbside trash pickup, a $47.3 million cost this fiscal year.
  • Passing a general obligation bond, which would cost the average homeowner $14 a year.
  • Creating an Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District, which would work like the old redevelopment system by harnessing tax revenue generated in a given location.

I’ll venture a guess that even with a hypothetical endorsement from taxpayer advocate Grover Norquist and Lt Gov. Gavin Newsom, along with tons of very specific promises, getting the last 5% of voters needed to win at the ballot box will be tough.

The Potential Downside

A few social media campaigns questioning the integrity of the deal behind any ballot measure could wreck even the best laid plans from political consultants. And there’s no end to the ways this could be exploited. For instance…

Today’s news includes a story about a ranking San Diego police officer who filed suit over racist cartoons being used as part of a training program. Why should a person of color vote to help out a government that can’t even clean up law enforcement after years of problems?

How about the hundred plus contracts identified by Auditor Eduardo Luna totaling more than $120 million not assigned for monitoring by anyone at city government? It would be easy to ask the question on Facebook pages about why taxpayers should trust the city with even more of their money if government can’t track what they’re already getting.

Why would anybody making minimum wage or thereabouts want to buy into anything endorsed by the people who played dirty to deny them a raise? Twitter Headline: “The People Who Cut Your Pay Now Want You to Pay More Taxes.”

How about those people in Barrio Logan? Instagram Meme: How the Chamber of Commerce Wants You to Pay More Taxes to Breathe Bad Air.

Nasty stuff, huh? It’s just like the kind of propaganda GOP consultant Jason Roe rolled out over the past two years. Some of the people asking for your vote on this matter in 2016 just shrugged their shoulders when people complained about the dirty campaigns they funded in 2014. Paybacks can be a bitch.

I realize the “democracy” part of this kind of deal comes on election day and that too many cooks do spoil the broth. But if local leaders are going to try and sell a ballot measure they should have to go beyond the usual kinds of promises.

15K go try it

The above is an excerpt from Doug Porter’s column at San Diego Free Press, our online media partner.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Gerald Sweeney January 25, 2015 at 8:12 pm

Who is accountable to the rate payers, called sewer and water customers, for the funds collected over the years of bimonthly bills? The City is charged with maintenance of the lines and has not accomplished their responsibilities.


Debra January 26, 2015 at 9:52 am

How about using the money collected from our property taxes, instead of carelessly squandering it on a five MILLION dollar waterpark or a stupid Ferris Wheel?


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