Save us, SANDAG. You’re our only hope.

San Diego’s got a long list of stuff that needs to be repaired, and nowhere near enough money to pay for it all.

City leaders years ago circled November 2016 as a time that might change. Young, liberal and low-income voters would flock to the polls for the presidential election, the thinking went, making it possible that two out of three voters would agree to raise taxes to pay for all the city’s needs.

Councilman Todd Gloria promised to start working on it back at the 2012 inauguration. He reiterated the promise during a State of the City address when he was interim mayor two years later.

But as 2016 draws closer, it’s clear the city might not have done enough to even put the question to voters.

Instead, the city might have to settle for latching onto a parallel attempt to raise taxes countywide by the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning agency whose board is made up of leaders from around the county.

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

“From my perspective, the city is probably unlikely to be able to put forward a real viable measure by 2016,” Gloria said at a June 26 SANDAG meeting discussing the bond measure, days after a Council committee told city staff to keep working on getting a proposal ready for voters.

A spokesperson for Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who is on both the Council’s infrastructure committee and SANDAG’s board, echoed Gloria’s remarks.

“SANDAG is just better organized,” Zapf staffer Alex Bell said. “They’ve been working on the bond measure longer than we have. They’re further down the line.”

The SANDAG meeting included a presentation from local pollster John Nienstedt, who researched whether increasing sales taxes across the county to pay for public needs even stands a chance.

It does. It’s close, but a tax increase could cross the 66 percent threshold it needs, Nienstedt found.

So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance

Unlike the city, SANDAG has no choice but to ask voters to increase taxes.

When county voters in 2004 extended TransNet, a half-cent sales tax that pays for transportation projects, they also voted to require that SANDAG come back to them with a way to pay for open space preservation.

SANDAG later added shoreline preservation, water quality and public transportation to the list of unfunded needs for which it would eventually ask voters for more revenue.

That was supposed to happen in 2008, but SANDAG — citing polling that said a proposal would probably lose — delayed the vote until 2010. It then delayed the vote until 2012, and again until 2016.

Now, the polling says a tax increase could win.

Nienstedt tested two ballot measures: one that sunsets in 40 years, and one with no end in sight.

“Both versions of the measure are within striking distance of passing,” he told the SANDAG board.

Anti-tax sentiment is down and environmental concern is up since SANDAG polled the issue in 2011, Nienstedt said.

Dueling Tax Proposals

While city leaders are slowly shifting their support to SANDAG’s bond proposal because it’s further along in the process, having both bonds on the same ballot was never ideal.

“The tax rubber band is only so elastic,” said SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos last year. “If you bunch them all up, there’s a likelihood (voters) say no to everything.”

There’s noise that state tax extensions will come before voters in 2016, which could further fracture support for local initiatives. Chula Vista’s SANDAG representative, Councilmember Pamela Bensoussan, said her city could have its own infrastructure-related bond on the 2016 ballot. Councilwoman Marti Emerald said she’s pushing a bond to fund fire stations, too.

Having voters face tax increases from the state and county, as well as citywide measures in Chula Vista and San Diego, could put them all in competition. The city’s independent budget analyst suggested as much in its own report on the city’s options to fund needed infrastructure improvements.

The IBA report said the city should decide by September whether it is pursuing its own measure, or leaning on the SANDAG bond instead.

But Colin Parent, policy counsel for transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego, sent a memo to elected leaders arguing SANDAG’s proposal could generate enough money to fix each city’s infrastructure problems, and fund regional needs.

“A regional measure is absolutely superior to a citywide measure,” Parent said.

He also pointed out that SANDAG’s long-term transportation plan is already counting on money from this bond paying for its future projects. Forget about planning more transit projects, or making them happen faster: Without this bond, SANDAG can’t even fund the transit projects it’s already counting on.

How money from SANDAG’s bond would be broken down is still up in the air. The IBA estimated it could bring around $42 million a year to the city; Circulate San Diego’s memo suggested it could be as much as $108 million annually.

Fending Off Opposition

Nienstedt’s poll also showed that support for the bond fell below the passage threshold after respondents heard a series of arguments against the plan.

One conclusion from that is that SANDAG needs to carefully select what goes into the plan to make it less susceptible to attacks.

It also means SANDAG needs to reach out to potential opponents and address concerns to make sure they don’t organize against it.

Lani Lutar used to run the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, where, based on her own assessment to SANDAG’s board, she “spent a tiny portion of her life opposing bad tax measures.” But speaking now for the Endangered Habitats League —an environmental preservation group — she said SANDAG’s proposal is better equipped to get a broad base of support than one from the city of San Diego.

“I think unfortunately the city would have to admit, if you were to throw hundreds of millions or a billion dollars at them, they would be struggling a bit to spend that money,” she said.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer has held a similar position. He reiterated this week that the city is not capable of efficiently spending the type of money that would be generated from a large infrastructure bond, and that he remains focused on fixing those problems, not supporting a citywide measure.

Aimee Faucett, COO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce — which helped fund opposition to an attempt to raise the city’s minimum wage — signaled that her organization is open to supporting new revenue to pay for public infrastructure.

The Chamber and the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council shared the cost of their own poll looking at the potential of a citywide infrastructure bond.

“Based on the data, from the SANDAG poll as well as the poll we did with Labor Council, it’s clear that infrastructure is a very high priority amongst voters,” Faucett said in a statement. “Whether through a city measure or a regional one, we’re all trying to figure out the best way to address long-term infrastructure needs.”

But opposition could still materialize.

Former Councilman Carl DeMaio, now a conservative radio host, pledged he would fight any city effort that included a tax increase.

His spokesman, Tommy Knepper, didn’t respond to a request to clarify whether that held for SANDAG’s countywide tax increase as well.

    This article relates to: Government, Infrastructure, Must Reads

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0529.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    I have just sent the following letter to the Mayor & Council regarding Tuesday's Docket Item regarding the contract for environmental review on the proposed new Chargers stadium:

    I cannot attend tomorrow's Council meeting but want to register my very strong opposition to spending any more money toward facilitating construction of a new Charger's stadium.

    I find this continued desire to expend City funds to satisfy demands by a sports team owned by a very wealthy family while, at the same time, the City desperately needs funding for many public purposes unconnected with subsidizing a sports franchise and not limited to millions of dollars for streets, sidewalks and roads - all of which are of great importance to every citizen of San Diego, not just fans of a football team - as irresponsible and offensive to me and to many other San Diegans (including increasing numbers of Chargers fans).

    I would remind you that the City (we the citizens) continue to pay millions of dollars annually from the City's General Fund on debt service for the Qualcomm expansion, for construction of Petco Park (both subsidies, in effect, for sports teams) and for the first Convention Center expansion.

    It is way past the time for all of you to consider the welfare of all of the citizens of San Diego and to give up what increasingly appears to be a losing effort to retain the Chargers in San Diego. I urge you to not approve this proposed contract with AECOM and to cease your efforts to keep a sports team in San Diego that has played all of you, and your predecessors, for years.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    If Sandag wanted to stretch their dollars they would be building regular freeway lanes instead of those car pool lanes that cost twice as much to build, which is not the greatest good for the greates number.

    Mike subscriber

    @Sean M Partially true.  I would have preferred commuter rails traveling up and down the center median area between the northbound and southbound BART does in the bay area.  Lacking that, the carpool lanes are still better than regular lanes.  Now that the rapid buses are using them too, it's helped a lot by taking many many cars off the road.  The little $0.25 or $1 charge they put on for the express lanes on the I-15 are also useful for reducing taxpayer cost.  All these things, however imperfect, are still better than adding regular lanes.

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    The costs and results of inefficient roadway constructiin are lost time, increased fuel use and increased pollution. It's debatable if the toll revenue is worth the cost of the inefficiency.

    Mystic Traveler
    Mystic Traveler subscriber

    Meanwhile the stadium proponents are going to raid the city's General Fund to build a new stadium that the majority of voters don't want.  Your tax dollars making sports franchises rich while San Diego infrastructure decays.

    La Playa Heritage
    La Playa Heritage subscribermember

    The City of San Diego by itself has a 40 percent Weighted Vote on SANDAG. And everyone else shares the remaining 60 percent. 

    SANDAG need 67 percent [2/3] of Board Members to put forth Ballot Propositions for Tax Increases on the 2016 Ballot.

    Therefore, with their 40 percent Weighted Vote, Mayor Faulconer, and Council Member Gloria have automatic VETO power for any proposed Ballot Language that does not benefit the City of San Diego and its neighborhoods. 

    Currently SANDAG staff still favor North and South County Freeways instead of Transit and Neighborhood projects. Therefore any Tax Increase should also include changing priorities and Projects for the existing TransNet 0.5 cent Sales Tax in order to reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions to meet the State's most stringent goals.

    Also the Ballot Language should be equitable to the City of San Diego so that Revenue collected within City limits stays in City limits.

    The Fiscal Year FY-2014 CAFR documents the annual SANDAG TransNet Revenue of $28.7 million, including a Fund Balance of $78.98 million = 275% Reserves. The City of San Diego has been scolded by SANDAG for failing to Spend and/or Encumber large Cash Reserves siting in the bank.  

    Similar to how Civic San Diego and the City hoarded Successor Agency and Low Moderate Income Housing Asset Fund (LMIHAF) Cash Reserves, and lost $25 million Cash by Default by failing to Transfer and/or Encumber Successor Agency (SA) and LMIHAF Funds and Bond Proceeds from 1995. 

    Tammy Tran
    Tammy Tran subscriber

    I am rather optimistic that the City of San Diego could afford to add an additional $3M from unanticipated/over-realized revenue during this fiscal year 2015-2016 to fund road repairs throughout the city.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Tammy Tran I think you are discounting the obsession of politicians to spend every dollar available and ask for more.  If a surplus seems likely to emerge, you won't believe the number of absolutely essential projects that will suddenly surface.

    Jeffrey Davis
    Jeffrey Davis subscribermember

    It bears repeating that sales taxes are regressive. The question of Who Pays is just as important as If and What For. One reason I'm unimpressed to see support from the Chamber and (implied) Taxpayers Assoc. And disappointed that liberal orgs aren't taking a stand against on that basis.

    Put a progressive revenue source on the ballot along with SanDAG's. Worst case, they both fail, but with some care I think that's unlikely. I nominate undoing the People's Ordinance, the even more regressive plain upward transfer of $20M every year. Even Taxpayer's Assoc has come out against that one. (You next, EDC and Partnership.) 

    There's other good City options too. And the needs are enormous.

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Jeffrey Davis The City's Charter Review Committee plans to discuss the People's Ordinance in September. It's essential that all of us who support a vote on repealing it, amending the City Charter to remove language that has the City paying for single family homes while the multi-family residential buildings and businesses must pay for their own trash removal. I explain that for any readers who may not know the People's Ordinance.

    Ron Hidinger
    Ron Hidinger subscriber

    My prediction: vague, obscure passages will be used to justify non-capital spending or monument building which the voters want no part of.