Fact Check: The Burgeoning Backlog - Voice of San Diego

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Fact Check: The Burgeoning Backlog

A Bond Buyer story claimed that an Independent Budget Analyst report found the city’s estimated $898 million backlog of infrastructure repairs is outdated.

Image: TRUEStatement: “A report by the San Diego Independent Budget Analyst found that the $898 million originally estimated as the city’s cost to repair aging infrastructure may be outdated,” The Bond Buyer reported in a June 24 story.

Determination: True

Analysis: Infrastructure is having a moment in San Diego.

Earlier this year, City Council President Todd Gloria created an infrastructure committee to address the city’s aging buildings and streets. Now the group, chaired by Councilman Mark Kersey, is working to address at least an $898 million backlog of necessary fixes.

The Bond Buyer, a daily trade newspaper that covers the bond industry, recently wrote about an independent budget analyst report that indicates the total bill could be much higher. The story suggested the cost, while not yet determined, will exceed the $898 million currently pegged as the city’s infrastructure backlog.

The city’s long-term infrastructure bill will weigh heavily on the city’s budgets in coming years, and officials may ultimately ask residents to increase taxes to help foot the bill. We wanted to know how officials decided on the current $898 million backlog estimate and how that figure may change in coming months or years.

For years, the city neglected repairs to city streets, facilities, storm drains and other assets and instead spent much of its cash on other needs.

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders confronted the problem in the mid-2000s but soon realized that he’d never catch up. The city couldn’t set aside enough cash each year to maintain its infrastructure and stave off further deterioration.

In the next few years, city officials began trying to assess the size of their infrastructure problem.

By March 2011, leaders assumed a backlog of about $840 million. This included $378 million in needed street repairs, $216 million in building improvements and $246 million for storm drain fixes.

The bill increased to $898 million by that November after officials incorporated findings from a review of city streets, and city leaders have cited that amount ever since.

But there were lots of items never included in that total.

This figure doesn’t include projects typically not covered by the city’s day-to-day fund. One example is water and sewer projects usually supported by city water bills. It also leaves out necessary park and sidewalk repairs, and only incorporates needs at about 30 percent of city facilities.

The latter will change soon because the city is about to go on a bit of an assessment spree.

The June 20 independent budget analyst report featured in the Bond Buyer story touched on the impact of these evaluations.

College engineering students are set to review the city’s 5,000 miles of sidewalks in the next year, a task the city’s never taken up before.

This is likely to result in a hefty bill, as the city’s independent budget analyst pointed out in an April report:

(The) Transportation & Storm Water Department’s Street Division staff estimate the deferred maintenance just for lifted/raised sidewalks, for example sidewalk segments pushed up by tree roots, to be about $4-5 million.

The city also set aside money to assess its parks. In March, the Park and Recreation department estimated its infrastructure needs total at least $121 million. That figure is conservative because it doesn’t include tweaks necessary to comply with environmental and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. A planned assessment will likely uncover additional needs and thus, a new and significant addition to the infrastructure backlog.

City buildings are about to get a more comprehensive check, too. Past reviews in 2007 and 2009 only included 443 of the city’s 1,600 facilities. As a result, the independent budget analyst has said that backlog of needed improvements for those buildings is likely to increase significantly when officials assess additional facilities this year.

All these assessments will only contribute to the city’s overall infrastructure backlog, likely adding up to a much larger total dollar figure once they’re complete.

Another reality will increase the bill, too.

No matter how many infrastructure improvements the city makes, it’s unlikely to ever catch up and the longer something remains in disrepair, the more it costs to fix.

Last year, the City Council approved a plan that slows the rate of infrastructure deterioration by 5 percent to 10 percent over five years. By comparison, the independent budget analyst estimated city facilities, streets and other infrastructure would deteriorate by 25 percent to 55 percent over five years if the city did nothing to address its aging assets.

These days, the city is taking a proactive approach.

The City Council’s infrastructure committee is seeking feedback from residents about which projects deserve top billing and plans to use the upcoming assessments to set priorities. Kersey, who leads the group, has said defining the problem – and the likely larger bill – is among its crucial first steps.

That’s essential, because as The Bond Buyer story claimed, the $898 million often cited as the cost of the city’s infrastructure backlog isn’t the most up-to-date and comprehensive figure.

In light of this, we decided the statement in the Bond Buyer story is true.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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