The argument for a larger San Diego Convention Center is a familiar one in the city: Build it and it will pay for itself in new taxes and other economic impact from convention-goers.
The pitch isn’t far off from another proposal under consideration: a plan to rebuild City Hall and redevelop the surrounding area in a way that supporters say would save the city millions over the years. Even a plan to build a downtown library has chugged along, with Mayor Jerry Sanders voicing conditional support for the building as long as the money doesn’t come from the city’s general fund, its day-to-day account.
The proposals follow a familiar path in San Diego, where major projects are touted as a net financial benefit for residents, or at the very least, something that can be done essentially at no cost to taxpayers.
“That happens every place,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, “but it’s been elevated to a fine art in San Diego, partly because of our anti-tax culture, so we have to promise to give taxpayers something for nothing.”
Anti-tax sentiment may be only part of the story, with the city’s financial scandals and a lack of political willpower playing their own roles. Observers say the pattern has pernicious effects on the city: Politicians have incentive to oversell the potential benefits and undersell the cost to taxpayers. They also may be reluctant to push potentially worthy projects that don’t pencil out.
“We really need to talk about what is important to the city and be willing to pay for it,” said Michael Stepner, a local architecture professor who worked for the city as an architect and acting planning director. “That has been a problem of the city for a long, long time.”