Last year, city of San Diego tax revenues grew more slowly than expenses despite pension reforms. Even as a Republican, Mayor Kevin Faulconer knows there is little or no fat left to cut in the city budget.

Commentary - in-story logoThe revenue-expense gap is likely to continue for up to 30 years without new revenues. Unlike the federal government, cities aren’t allowed deficit budgets and they can’t print money. The choice we face is finding new revenue or cutting the bare bones services we suffer from in San Diego.

The mayor’s solution to this problem is a good one: a hotel tax increase to fund an expanded Convention Center while financing programs to ease homelessness and repair local roads.

In the spirit of transparency, I recently left my post as a commissioner for the Port of San Diego. Ethics rules bar me for a year from being paid to advance the Convention Center expansion, which sits on Port land. My business partner, Tony Manolatos, serves as the tourism coalition’s spokesman, but I do not advise or counsel on the project.

I urge the City Council to immediately reverse course and put the mayor’s measure on the ballot in a special election in 2017. They have a few more weeks to do it. The chances for victory are far better this year than in 2018, when a barrage of national and state political campaigns will drown out the importance of the mayor’s measure. Wasting another year is very bad news for our city.

The measure has hit some hurdles, all of which can still be overcome.


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

One big issue has been the flashy SoccerCity proposal to redevelop the Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley. It was concocted in secret for two years by private investors until it exploded like an asteroid headed for Earth. Overnight, it became the bright shiny object, bedazzling the political establishment and sucking oxygen from the room at precisely the worst time.

Unlike the Convention Center expansion, planned in public for 12 years, the SoccerCity plan has not been honed through public participation. The SoccerCity proposal deserves its fair day on the ballot in 2018 as the City Charter suggests – the mayor and City Council should not let this private development obfuscate the need for a Convention Center, homeless and roads vote now.

Another issue has been business people and their political allies who are against including project labor agreements –  pacts between the city and organized labor groups –  in the measure. Republican hatred of labor unions blinds them to both the legal and political realities – no major project on city or Port of San Diego land is going to get built without paying prevailing wages. Period.

Think it through: there are now about 115,000 more Democrats than Republicans in San Diego; more Democrats than Republicans in eight out of nine Council Districts. Seemingly smart business people have been smoking something if they imagine that union leaders – by far the most potent force in Democratic politics – will turn a blind eye to the best interests of the workers whose dues pay their salaries.

City Attorney Mara Elliot has warned that including a project labor agreement deal inside a tax measure is legally treacherous. A way to resolve this impasse is a detailed contract between unions and the city (typically in the past these have been a memoranda of understanding) that would become effective upon voter adoption of the hotel tax.

To those who stand with me on the left, like you I supported (and donated money to help pay for) Measure L, which passed last year and requires that voter-initiated measures appear on the general election ballot to ensure maximum voter participation. Council-initiated measures like the mayor’s Convention Center, homeless and roads proposal are specifically eligible for special elections. The Council should invoke Measure L, enabling them to head off our fiscal crisis before it arrives.

Killing a special election this year means worse days ahead for the homeless, our local streets and city finances. I hope the City Council reverses course immediately. They have only a few weeks to do it.

Bob Nelson is a former Port of San Diego commissioner and Convention Center Corporation board member. Since 1979, he has directed ballot measure campaigns across the United States. Nelson’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Convention Center, Opinion

    Written by Opinion

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    14 comments
    Bob Stein
    Bob Stein subscriber

    PR man Nelson uses a fun rhetorical move in this piece.It’s called an apophasis: a spoken or written figure in which an assertion is made in the midst of a denial.

    It’s in paragraph four where Nelson writes, “In the spirit of transparency…ethics rules bar me for a year from being paid to advance the Convention Center expansion…” Then he goes on for hundreds of words more advancing the convention center expansion!

    I guess he thinks announcing he’s writing for free gives his argument more credibility.He’s pretty much saying, “See how much I care about San Diego people.I’m not even being paid to write this.”

    Nelson’s is a perfectly acceptable attempt at persuading an audience, so common it has a name, but it begs the question, “Did he break the ethics rules he’s referring to?”

    Maybe he wasn’t personally paid to write this piece, but as he says, his PR firm is getting paid to promote the expansion.So like Manolatos, and as a partner in the firm, isn’t Nelson also earning money in some way from what he calls “the tourism coalition project?”

    Bill Tippets
    Bill Tippets

    I don't see the urgency to have the San Diego City Council put up a special ballot this fall for a tourist tax to fund the Convention Center expansion even if it is linked with allocating some funds for other infrastructure and affordable housing - for many of the reasons others have mentioned.  In addition, the Port of San Diego is in the midst of developing its 30-year Master Plan Update (MPU), which could (should) markedly change the look and functionality of the bay shoreline, including downtown San Diego.  That plan will likely be released later this year, and the Port should be working more closely with the City to integrate downtown and Port development opportunities, the "downtown mobility" plan, and creating a viable public transit system linking the airport, downtown/Convention Center (expanded or not), and  the other four bay cities.  A real bay transit system that integrates with the bay cities' transportation/circilation systems would immeasurably improve access to and enjoyment of the bay and would connect the increased park and open spaces the Port has proposed to create around the bay (aka the "Green Necklace").


    As a Port Commissioner, Bob Nelson championed visionary thinking in the early phases of the MPU process and a number of very good ideas were incorporated into the Port's Vision Statement and Framework Plan that will be the basis for the Master Plan Update.  I urge him - and the City/Mayor - to see the value in holding-off on the special ballot this November and wait until after the Port (with input from the City of SD as well as the other four bay cities) releases its draft master plan.  At that point it should be clear if the sought-after expansion makes sense, if other expansion options would be more sensible, or if there is a real need to expand.  

    Bob Nelson
    Bob Nelson subscribermember

    Bill, as usual you present cogent argument which I respect. Since 2014 I have championed a multi-agency response to San Diego waterfront and downtown mobility and parking challenges. Unfortunately, other than Robert Gleason and Todd Gloria no local officials have been willing to lean in and get out of their siloes to deal comprehensively with this pressing challenge. Todd has moved on to Sacramento, Robert is no longer Airport chair and now I have left the Port. It rests with a new generation of leaders to emerge and grapple with this issue. I hope they will be more effective than I was. I hope you will be among those who provide solutions.

    merlot4251
    merlot4251 subscriber

    You have omitted one very salient fact:  the city allowed their option on the adjacent parcel of land to lapse in 2015.  The city currently has no rights to this land!  The current leaseholder is now proceeding with plans to build a hotel on that site.  How much time and $$$ will it cost the city to negotiate and/or litigate this?  There is no guarantee that they would succeed, and where do the costs for that come from?  The tax increase revenues or another hit to the city's annual budget?  While i am not opposed to the convention center expansion, I will never vote in favor of it until the land issue is resolved first.

    Bob Nelson
    Bob Nelson subscribermember

    The FAL issue and labor peace are the two greatest -- and totally solvable challenges. Resolving both of those rests with leadership of the City and one hopes they will rise to get it done. And there is no reason they cannot get it done in the next six weeks, enabling a vote this November. It may be, however, that we have met the enemy and they are us, to quote the sage Pogo.

    Don Atenow
    Don Atenow

    Gotta shuffle downtown a bit... move the convention center & soccer city (or whatever the pro-sports-fixation du jour is) to the site of Lindbergh (660 acres is plenty for both and we can keep the quaint aerospace theme and the existing terminals as entry points to the new CC & Sports facilities).


    Lindbergh moves north (or more centrally as it's known - yep, underutilized Miramar is still a mighty fine spot with only 2,400 eastern acres required of the 23,000 existing acres and still plenty of road access (dual use is perfect for a region like San Diego) and gets two whole 11,500' runways (one for big boys and one for big girls). 


    The former convention center becomes low income housing for many of the hospitality workers needed to support the "dynamic" tourism trade.

    Theresa Quiroz
    Theresa Quiroz subscriber

    So we spend $1 BILLION to expand the convention center so that we can bring in an additional 30 conventions each year.  Am I the only one befuddled by the claim that this would be a good use of our taxpayer dollars?

    Jeremy Hansen
    Jeremy Hansen

    Bob wrote "Measure L, which passed last year and requires that voter-initiated measures appear on the general election ballot to ensure maximum voter participation"

    Allow me to point out his use of the word "requires" in the sentence above.

    Measure L said on the ballot: "Shall the Charter be amended to require qualified citizens’ initiative and referendum measures to be submitted to voters on the next November general election ballot and not at a June primary election, unless the Council chooses to submit the measure to voters prior to that election?"

    I really hope I'm not the only one who sees this clear misrepresentation by Bob.

    Bob Nelson
    Bob Nelson subscribermember

    @Jeremy Hansen Thank you for caring and writing -- regardless of whether we agree on the issue at hand. 1. The proposed tourist tax increase would be a Council-initated measure. Measure L was intentionally flexible on election date to enable the Council to set it on an earlier ballot if they deem appropriate -- as in the current case of City revenues failing to keep up with the organic growth of expenses, threatening a budget deficit. 2. As you accurately cite, the Measure L Charter amendment requires that all Citizen-initiated measures appear on the General (November of even numbered years) ballot. 3. I am missing the "misrepresentation" to which you refer. Peace.

    Jeremy Hansen
    Jeremy Hansen

    Hi Bob,

    It says not June primary, and it says city council can call a special election. That's the "unless the council chooses" part. There is no requirement that it can only be on the general election, the general election is one of two options.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Don't know why Mr. Nelson is in such a rush. Putting any vote on a new city tax increase to fund yet another expansion of the convention center gives his PR firm an extra year to develop a pro-tax political campaign for the port and the mayors office, and an extra year of big paychecks.

    Bob Nelson
    Bob Nelson subscribermember

    @Don Wood -- for whom my admiration knows few limits -- has once again confused me with a person principally motivated by money. Don, you are spending too much time with the wrong kind of lawyers. But it does not make me respect you any less.

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    While the general public may have been surprised by the SoccerCity project, the mayor certainly was not. The promoters met with him many times. He was well aware of the "shiny object" that has overshadowed the convention center expansion. He has no one else to blame for sabotaging his own initiative.

    philip piel
    philip piel subscriber

    Bob, why don't the unions fund the project? The expansion and associated work will no doubt include a union only Project Labor Agreement which denies local state approved non-union construction apprentices the opportunity to work so I ask you, why not have union labor invest their money to build?

    Instead of purchasing politicians union dues money could be used to offset proposed taxes. When making secret backroom deals to special interest couldn't we at least reap some sort of benefit? Couldn't someone act on behalf of the tax payers and use union money to pay for their monopoly on public works projects while hotel tax money is spent on important items that affect everyone?

    Bob, why aren't you mentioning the discriminatory labor deals as one of your "hurdles?" Why aren't you mentioning why union labor hiring halls in LA, Northern California and surrounding states will empty out to come and replace local workers on this project? Bob, some "hurdles" will no longer be "overcome," local state approved non-union apprentices and local non-union construction journeyman will not look the other way while they're considered a "hurdle."