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Meet the Latest Road Repair Roadblock

Cory Briggs wants the city to go to a public vote for an infrastructure loan even if it takes two years. “That’s the price of shitty leadership in a big city,” he says.

You might have heard of Cory Briggs. He’s the lawyer suing City Council President Todd Gloria and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith over public records, suing to stop the planned Convention Center expansion and a member of the trio who took down former Mayor Bob Filner.

Briggs has a new target: city street and infrastructure repairs.

Briggs is threatening to sue the city over its latest $120 million infrastructure loan, which is designed to repave roads, repair and design new fire stations, among other fixes.

Briggs believes the loan must be approved in a public vote because it’s a long-term debt.

The state has rules that restrict when a local government can issue debt without voter approval. The city plans to use a financing structure for the infrastructure bond called a lease-leaseback that gets around those restrictions.

The method is used throughout California but it’s far from straightforward. The city leases some buildings, in this case 16 properties, to a city-controlled financing authority for a nominal fee. The financing authority uses the properties as collateral for the loans. The city pays the financing authority an annual rent equal to the loan payment.

City officials don’t believe Briggs’ claims have merit, but they’re not taking out the loan in the meantime. Councilman Mark Kersey, who heads the city’s infrastructure committee, is none too pleased.

“We’re just trying to do our job here and this is not helpful at all,” Kersey said.

Loan dollars are critical to the city’s infrastructure repairs. More than 60 percent of the money the city spends annually on street, building and storm drain fixes comes from the loans. Even with the loans, the city still does not spend enough to keep things from getting worse every year.

This loan is the fourth the city has planned to issue this way since 2009. This is the first time someone has threatened to sue the city over the financing structure. Courts have a long history of approving similar measures.

Former City Attorney Mike Aguirre refused to sign off on this financing structure when he was in office, saying it was an illegal way to avoid a public vote. He pushed for one. It didn’t happen. Briggs says he wants a public vote, too.

Briggs said he’s bringing the case now because he raised a similar issue in a lawsuit over the now-defunct plan to remake Balboa Park’s central plaza.

He also said he didn’t have time to do if before. He’s been busy filing many lawsuits against the city on other issues.

“Even watchdog organizations only have certain resources,” Briggs said.

Briggs might ultimately get his wish. Gloria is pushing for a megabond for repairs, which would include a tax increase, on the November 2016 ballot.

“If it’s so good and you’re going to go to the voters anyway, then why don’t you just do it legally?” Briggs said.

But even if the megabond were to pass, not having loan money now creates problems. Infrastructure will deteriorate further, requiring even more money in fixes. And the city needs a constant stream of dollars to keep making repairs without delaying projects that have been funded over time.

Briggs said he thinks voters would be willing to trade two years of further street decay to keep the city from issuing loans he believes the city can’t afford to pay back.

“That’s the price of shitty leadership in a big city,” he said.

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