Sometimes you can just feel when a story has legs.

This story about the San Diego Association of Governments has legs.

Right now, one of the region’s least-known but most influential government agencies is going through a severe crisis.

The agency persuaded county voters in 2004 to extend a sales tax to pay for a bevy of transportation projects that it pledged would ease traffic congestion and expand transit options.


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But SANDAG’s promises were based on its estimate of how much money it would collect from those sales taxes.

And that estimate was wrong. Very wrong.

Now, the agency is on track to collect billions less than it projected. Many of those projects pledged have no funding.

This is all excusable. SANDAG officials, led by Executive Director Gary Gallegos, did not steal the money or waste it, as far as we can tell. The agency just made some questionable assumptions about how the economy would perform. In fact, taxpayers can’t be outraged that they ended up sending less money to the government than some bean counters predicted they would.

However, this is now a scandal. Why?

Because if it were not for Andrew Keatts, on our staff, nobody would know about this. This is something SANDAG officials should have disclosed themselves.

That would be upsetting enough if it were not also for the fact that based on the same assumptions, SANDAG officials spent 2016 trying to sell the public on a new tax hike, on top of the old one, to build more transportation projects. Over and over again, they said the new tax hike, which became Measure A on the November ballot, would raise $18 billion. That money would be combined with state and federal matching dollars to pay for all of these things.

That was all a sham. The tax would have raised much less.

Before the election, Keatts uncovered the faulty projections and only now, several weeks after the election, are SANDAG officials acknowledging he was right.

Unfortunately, the window to make this right closed on Election Day. Voters were deliberately misled.

We’re still trying to understand exactly what SANDAG knew and when.

But c’mon. How could Keatts possibly be the only one who spotted this? I suspect he was not. These projections are not just important to SANDAG but to agencies across the region. How many cities were counting on money from SANDAG but will have to nix projects because they too were misled?

The assumptions were wrong and SANDAG stayed silent, letting voters make their decisions.

And for what? Again, there’s no obvious foul play they would want to hide.

The agency’s leaders could have turned this vulnerability into an opportunity to communicate with voters. Something like: People across San Diego are not paying as much sales tax as we thought they would. This has jeopardized some of the projects we thought we would be able to build. If you still want them — and an overwhelming majority of you said you did — here’s what we have to do.

They did not do that. Instead, they fell ill with what cripples a lot of local government agencies: paralysis in the face of a mistake or problem.

Local government leaders seem physically unable to admit they’ve done something wrong or made a mistake, much less turn that into an opportunity to enroll the public in helping solve its challenges.

Instead, even now that they’ve fessed up to one problem, they’re still trying not to reveal what it all means. This only makes things worse.

To wave away the local tax shortfall we revealed, SANDAG officials now will say they will make up that money from other sources. They assume they will match every dollar it gets from local taxpayers with grants from the state and federal governments.

For every $1 SANDAG puts up, it has admirably, and often, been able to attract $3 more to build things. Now it assumes it will get $3 all the time.

It never assumed that kind of match before.

But there’s more. Even getting $3 for every local dollar would still leave SANDAG billions short of what it needs. To meet its pledges to voters back in 2004, SANDAG actually needs to get more than $3 for every $1 it puts up.

That is hardly something they can assume. You might have heard there’s a new president. Yes, he has said he would like to do a massive infrastructure stimulus package, but nobody has any idea what that will look like or whether San Diego, a place in California, will benefit somehow more than it has under the new administration and the new Congress than it did under previous ones.

And finally, let’s talk again about how this is all coming to light. Last week, Ray Major, SANDAG’s chief economist, told SANDAG’s board that, “in light of recent news reports,” his staff examined their numbers and realized they were overestimating retail sales, and therefore taxes they would collect.

This is something that might have dramatic implications for each of the towns those board members represent. Not only does it concern projects their residents might be interested in but local dollars they might be expecting.

Not one of them asked a question. San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf signaled she wanted to say something but then stayed quiet when she realized they were running over the planned time for the meeting.

This seems like the kind of thing for which they could delay lunch at least few minutes.

Yes, they already punted the opportunity to do this right. But the credibility of the organization is now at stake. Someone needs to explain exactly what happened, why it was not disclosed and what will be done about it.

We will keep digging to figure out what they knew when they were telling voters how much money they could bring in and how many projects they could do.

Or, they could just tell us.

Either way, this one is not going away.

    This article relates to: Government, Opinion, SANDAG

    Written by Scott Lewis

    I'm Scott Lewis, the editor in chief of Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it's a blast!): @vosdscott.

    17 comments
    Louis Rodolico
    Louis Rodolico

    The level of interaction one would see at a dynamic transportation authority is weak or non-existent at SANDAG meetings. The agency needs to be re-energized, the sooner the better. A fraction of the money for the new blue line could have been spent on linking the regional rail coaster-surfliner lines just east of I-5, which would have avoided the east jog. SANDAG never completed their Regional Rail system which should have had stops at Del Mar Racetrack, University, Clairemont and Tecolote. When I have business in LA I have to drive 13 miles to Solana beach to get the reginal rail which passes within a mile of my house in University.

    Phillip Franklin
    Phillip Franklin subscriber

    You mean to tell me there is corruption plus total incompetence in San Diego government operations?  Say it isn't so.  Again what do you expect from a city dubbed by the national media as Enron by the Sea?  It will not go away anytime soon.  The people who seek government positions just simply see the average San Diego voter as ignorant and at best apathetic.  That is why San Diego has always been corrupt to the core.  An honest politician could never get elected here.  

    Judith Swink
    Judith Swink subscriber

    @Phillip Franklin There are kernels of truth in what you write but I think San Diego voters demonstrated, in November, that they are not as ignorant or apathetic as you claim. I put Props A, B, C & D before you as evidence. All had huge, expensive and highly visible campaigns to convince voters that these measures were to the benefit of voters but voters were capable of perceiving that they were not, in reality, beneficial to residents of San Diego City or County.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    Another "sin of omission" initiative was prop "D" the so called citizen initiative. touted as a way to, as Donna Frye put it...

    “Measure D protects the San Diego River by authorizing the city to sell whatever portion of the Qualcomm Stadium site the Chargers don’t use to local colleges, universities, and/or the San Diego River Conservancy at fair market value. "It would condition the sale to setting aside at least 28 acres for river restoration and an urban rivers research center, 22 acres for development of public parks, and walking and biking trails." LIKE if you agree!

    trouble was that most revenue went to the general fund where it could be used for anything a majority on the council wanted it to.

     Then the day after the election the mayor announces service cutbacks because of pension shortfalls.

     Coincidence? yea right!

    The city has a credibility crisis also. They too, have proved themselves to be less that trustworthy.

    Joe Silverman
    Joe Silverman subscribermember

    I don't know how "excusable" the forecasting error is when organizations (governmental and commercial) routinely Low Ball estimates to secure approval.

    merlot4251
    merlot4251 subscriber

    Not only SANDAG remained silent about the shortfalls, but so did the supposed TRANSNET independent oversight board. Or did they even notice?  Do they just rubber stamp everything SANDAG feeds them?  I think some major housecleaning is in order, both at SANDAG and the oversight board.

    Jack Shu
    Jack Shu subscriber

    This is consistent with court rulings on their 2011 Regional Transportation Plan which is very much like their current one:Superior court... "SANDAG abused their authority" Appellate court... "SANDAG mislead and misinformed the public..." What will our elected official do? What should the people of our region do?

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Mr. Shu: The inertia here, in my view, abuses aside, is based on the fact that because SANDAG's board is made up of representatives of each of the cities and political districts of the county, there is no one from those entities willing to criticize or hold SANDAG accountable. Reason being: They own each of the decisions and would be criticizing their brethren on the board who routinely approve this stuff. Like Ms. Zapf, they sit mostly silently and rubber stamp the staff approach, but in doing so they become responsible, while representing their own cities. Will the Mayor of San Diego say, "This is an outrage," considering that he has a seat at the table and has never really pushed back in any way? Unlikely. Will the San Diego City Council express upset toward Ms. Zapf? Unlikely. 

    Walt Brewer
    Walt Brewer subscribermember

    @Jack Shu  While looked upon favorably by others  in principle, SANDAG is a monopoly assigned to handle complex issues in the  public interest. Corrections, and changes are by longp term ballot box feedback.


    It needs authoritative independent objective facts based oversight.

    You have shown the example of other options not shown and rationale of choice not explained. There is currently mismatch between mode choices by Staff and Directors.


    What thoughts do you have for a different process?

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I guess I wasn't the only one who had lost some faith in SANDAG, BEFORE the election.  Since I'm 85 and would probably not see any results from the wonderful projects SANDAG had been promoting, I was a bad boy and voted my wallet.  Obviously, I had company.  I don't see how SANDAG recoups it's credibility, absent a major shakeup in it's bureaucracy.

    Thomas Theisen
    Thomas Theisen subscribermember

    I mailed in my vote for Measure A BEFORE the VOSD article disclosing the revenue shortfall. I decided to trust SANDAG - will not make that mistake again for many years.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @paul jamason Just for fun, I scrolled through the items the board considered, all ten of them.  There were about 150 votes tallied on the ten issues.  Wanna guess how many "nays" there were.  You got it  Zero.


    So, I guess it's fair to say that, regardless of the quality of it's decisions, we have a SANDAG board that's really in synch.  I don't know how long this guy Gallegos has been in place, but maybe it's time to see if we can trade him to The Chargers for, say, a place kick holder?  

    Backpacker
    Backpacker subscriber

    A sin of omission: Failure to do what one can and ought to do. (Wikipedia) Perhaps for a larger salary, they might have mentioned this?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    The faulty projections are easy to fix, even without a sales tax hike. Simply lift restrictions on the number of parking spaces that business owners must provide for their own customers. (Who do you think is more qualified to judge a business' needs, the business or the city?) This would allow more taxpaying businesses to fit within the city's borders while reducing traffic congestion (because why would you drive somewhere without abundant, free parking?).