In January, San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey pledged to put up a ballot measure that would finally deal with the city’s large infrastructure funding dilemma.

But instead of raising new money through a tax, or identifying things he would cut to free up money, Kersey settled on a multi-decade plan to simply force the city to prioritize decaying streets, facilities and other concrete needs.

It won’t, however, produce enough money to pay for all the stuff that needs fixing right away. History shows that in the long term, approaches like this one haven’t worked here. And Kersey’s plan reveals we’re still a long way from actually resolving the infrastructure problem.

Before I get into all that, here’s a breakdown of what the proposal will do.

Kersey’s Plan: The Basics

Most years, the money the city collects from taxes grows. Kersey wants to tie the hands of future politicians to ensure that a portion of that growth is always set aside for infrastructure in three ways:

• A large percentage of natural growth in sales tax revenues over the next three decades


We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?

• Money saved from paying off pension debt over the next three decades

• Half of all natural tax revenue growth over the next 10 years

Importantly, this doesn’t involve any new money. It only identifies sources of money the city has already anticipated, and formally directs it toward infrastructure.

Kersey wants city voters to approve the plan in June.

This Won’t Fix the Problem

The latest city numbers indicate there’s a $1.7 billion gap between the roads, buildings, storm drains and other infrastructure the city wants to fix and the money it has to make repairs over the next five years.

I asked Kersey how much money his plan will produce over the next five years.

“The next five to 10 years, we’re talking about a few hundred million dollars,” Kersey said.

So his plan produces less than a quarter of what’s needed.

Kersey’s answer also points to an even bigger problem with his approach. The city’s independent budget analyst has made very clear in past reports that the city can’t rely only on naturally growing tax revenues to fix its infrastructure problem. The funding gap is simply too large.

Kersey also said Wednesday that he plans to continue the city’s plans to borrow money without a tax increase to pay for infrastructure repairs. The IBA also has called out that system as being unsustainable because it locks up too much of the city’s property and day-to-day budget revenues in future years.

So while Kersey’s numbers sound big, they still don’t provide enough money to do anything meaningful in the short term. In the long term, the plan presents another problem.

There’s Lots of Historical Precedent for This and It’s All Bad

San Diego has a long history of politicians trying to set aside future money for something they like only to have it fail.

In the 1990s, then-Mayor Susan Golding tried to do it with public safety. It didn’t work. In the 2000s, then-Mayor Dick Murphy tried to do it with libraries. That didn’t work, either.

Political scientist Vlad Kogan, who has written extensively about San Diego politics, once told me that Golding and Murphy’s plans were failures because they ignored that the cost of other services grew over time, too.

For instance, city leaders — including Kersey — recently agreed to raises for police officers over coming years. The assumption the politicians are making is that revenues will also grow — the city will collect more money from sales, hotel and property taxes to pay for these raises.

“I think it’s a shell game,” Kogan said.

Kersey said his idea is different because a voter mandate will force city leaders to keep the infrastructure funding promise.

But that has a failed historical precedent as well. Three years ago, then-Councilman Carl DeMaio, Kersey’s predecessor, pitched a ballot measure that would have lockboxed future revenue growth and dedicated it to infrastructure. The money sources were slightly different, but the concept was exactly the same.

DeMaio’s idea landed with a thud. It got one committee hearing and was barely spoken of again.

And Kersey’s plan is more radical than DeMaio’s. DeMaio’s only tied up new money for five years. Kersey wants to do it for three decades.

Ten years from now, whoever is on the City Council is projected to have a nice little windfall because the city will have finally paid off some old pension debt. By then, Kersey will be gone and so will every other city politician now in office. Beyond that, we have no idea what the city’s needs might be in 2025. We might be driving hover cars and riding the hyperloop, who knows?

But Kersey wants to tie that future Council’s hands right now.

“The whole point of this is to make sure that future generations of city leaders are forced to prioritize infrastructure funding,” Kersey said.

This Means We’re Still Far Away From Solving the Problem

There are two ways to fix the city’s infrastructure problem. The first is to raise taxes, which is problematic because it adds to people’s burden.

The other is to redesign city government to free up the money you need to actually repair and build everything you want. That could mean selling off things like golf courses and dedicating that cash to infrastructure. Or the city could stop paying for things and make citizens pick up the costs directly. Or the city could radically cut costs in other services. This, of course, would probably require not spending $15 million a year on a new football stadium.

The point is that the math has to work – the money you need matches the money you have.

By not supporting a tax hike, Kersey’s isn’t taking the first approach. And he’s taking the easy part of the second. He wants to set the city’s spending priorities for the next 30 years without having to make the hard decisions on what the city won’t be able to buy because of his mandate.

More immediately, Kersey’s plan also likely signals the death knell of the megabond – a long floated tax increase to pay for infrastructure. For years, the November 2016 ballot was seen as the best option for such a measure because turnout is expected to be high, especially among people who might support a tax hike.

But because Kersey’s plan is a ballot measure as well, city leaders would be silly to float a second infrastructure plan next year. If the city does want to get new money, it will have to rely on a proposed ballot measure from SANDAG for a sales tax hike to provide infrastructure improvements countywide.

Council President Sherri Lightner endorsed Kersey’s plan at his press conference Wednesday. The city’s infrastructure committee, which Kersey heads, will hear the measure next week. Lightner and Kersey said they expected the full Council to vote no later than February to put the plan on the June ballot.

    This article relates to: Government, Infrastructure, Must Reads

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

    16 comments
    Ryan Oh
    Ryan Oh

    San Diego will hopefully be gone and destroyed!!!

    Steve Bralla
    Steve Bralla

    We don't need to raise taxes.  We have so much we can give millions to sports teams.  Or to look at the other way.  I have a plan how to get  200 million to  fix streets.  Still does leave us 1.5 billion short.

    ZachW
    ZachW subscriber

    Kersey's plan is idiotic. We would be better off having politicians do nothing rather than produce nonsense like this idea.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I’ve never met Mr. Kersey and have no opinion on his competence, energy or trustworthiness.But, shouldn’t we cut the guy some slack? He volunteered for this mission impossible and has at least produced a list of what has to be done.Those people who are pooh poohing his efforts because he hasn’t proposed a nice, fat tax increase are blowing a bit of smoke themselves.


    With two recent school bonds looking increasingly like P.R. disasters and California finances and governance looking very questionable as well (See, e.g., today’s U.T. op-ed piece about the water situation), do you really think a self imposed tax increase on city residents has a prayer?


    What form would it take, sales tax perhaps?  California sales taxes are among the highest in the nation, and imposing a significant CITY sales tax looks to me like a non-starter.  Want to try a property tax increase, maybe an add-on like we get for schools?  See above.


    What OUGHT to be done, but won’t, is to roll back the huge increase in pensions for city employees and increase the retirement eligibility age.  It’s a non-starter because it’s currently illegal,  thanks to our special interest controlled legislature.


    So, Kersey bashers, let’s hear YOUR plan, particularly how you’ll get it by the voters.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Bradshaw: While I appreciate that you have a concern about pensions for city employees, with which I mostly disagree, the legislature is not the culprit here. The California Supreme Court, in various decisions, has found it to be unconstitutional to abrogate commitments made to employees in this regard. I would note also that the median pension for a city employee is around $45,000 per year and that the pension system is expected to be 100% funded by 2022. I appreciate that you consider public employees to be a pinata to blame the ills of the city upon, but whether there is a pension or a 401(k), the city will have an obligation to fund it. The present system for new employees is that eligible new hires who are non-safety employees are required to contribute 9.2 percent of their compensation to the plan, which is matched by a 9.2 percent employer (city) contribution. Like all responsible employers, the city contributes to retirement benefits for its employees.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Bradshaw: Budget a reasonable amount on an annual basis and address the problem over time. Rationale: The reason we get into these holes is due to failure to keep up with infrastructure needs on an annual basis (i.e. routine maintenance). When there is a big enough backlog and a "crisis" the problem is typically addressed with a bond, which is paid off over the long-term. That handcuffs future leaders, who must pay off a bond that was spent prior to their ascension. Kersey proposes a variation on this concept. Our infrastructure maintenance needs are substantial, but not so substantial that they cannot be addressed over time by carving out a reasonable amount of the budget each year. Alas, funding infrastructure is incremental, boring, and gets few politicians reelected. Kersey's plan is to force future political leaders to take prescribed actions. That is what's known as kicking the can down the road. Why not simply come up with a four year plan to fund a chunk of the needs using a prescribed percent of the general fund?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Chris Brewster Because insulating people from the consequences of their decisions is never a good idea. It would be far better to pay for the roads with gas taxes and other user fees instead of out of the general fund.

    Other than that, I agree with your other points.

    ZachW
    ZachW subscriber

    Why should politicians be given credit for sub-par plans that in effect simply kick the can down the road?

    ZachW
    ZachW subscriber

    B. Bradshaw: We have a backlog of infrastructure problems. Put it to a vote to raise taxes to pay for it. If people are unwilling to spend money, then we continue driving on 3rd world crumbling roads. It's that simple. If there was a magic wand that gives us updated infrastructure without spending money, it would have been done by now. Kersey is not a magician. He's a political hack trying to do what many inept politicians have done for decades - promise something for nothing.

    Mike
    Mike subscriber

    So if the city leaders have their way, and everything goes according to plan, then the June 2016 ballot will have:

    1.$300M to pay the Chargers to build a new stadium

     2.$0 to pay for city infrastructure improvements

    Is that right? Are those 2 things really going to appear on the ballot side by side? And what would it mean for the people of this city if we were dumb enough to vote yes on these?






    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    If we aren't willing to approve a tax increase to fix potholes, doesn't it prove that we think they aren't worth fixing? So why are decaying streets a "problem"?

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann  --It proves nothing of the sort.  If anything, it proves the city has their priorities in the wrong place.  The streets are definitely worth fixing--but the longer it is put off, the more it will cost.  Example--Allied Gardens.  Many streets weren't even slurry-sealed for years, which led to the streets being ground down and repaved, which had to be much more expensive than regular slurry sealing of the existing street.


    By 2050, the city's population is expected to approach 2 million, and the city will need those crumbling streets (and parking), along with more streets and more public transportation as well.  You still want those old streets to crumble?  Or, should I ask, are you willing to vote for a tax increase to fix it?  I am.