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With Megabond Flailing, City Leaders Look to Regional Fix

• City leaders have long looked to 2016 as the year a major citywide infrastructure bond had its best chance.

• But with 2016 approaching, the bond is still stuck in neutral.

• Now officials might abandon the megabond and hop on SANDAG's regional measure, which could also fund infrastructure needs in the city of San Diego.

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.

“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.

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