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The 3 Questions We Hear Most Often About How San Diego Works

Readers consistently submit three questions that deal with separate issues but have something in common: They all center on systems that everyone needs and uses.

Photos via Shutterstock and Adriana Heldiz

San Diegans have many, many questions about their city but three come up constantly.

These three questions were submitted using our People’s Reporter tool, but they’re ones we hear so consistently we decided to round them up here. They deal with different issues but have something in common: They all center on systems that everyone needs and uses: transit, trash and education.

Have more questions? Submit your question or vote on others you think we should answer next via our People’s Reporter tool.

The question from Ann Patterson of North Park: “Why doesn’t the trolley go to the airport?”

San Diegans and visitors long have questioned why the trolley doesn’t go to the airport. It’s a question that’s bedeviled regional leaders too. There is a bus connection to the airport, but people still don’t understand how the trolley can pass so close to the airport without actually serving it.

Officials are now trying to come up with a solution.

So how did we get here?

Turns out that transportation planners did envision the trolley line that would run along Harbor Drive connecting to airport terminals in the late 1980s. But the concept hit three major snags.

First, there were concerns about crossing an existing freight rail line. Trolleys and rail lines can’t share tracks.

Former regional and transportation planner Dave Schumacher previously told Voice of San Diego that planners believed they’d need to build a bridge or a tunnel to go over or under that freight line.

Another wrinkle: At the time, the Coast Guard moved its own plane across Harbor Drive from its base to the airport. Literally, traffic would stop and a plane would cross. (!!)

That meant transportation planners needed to ensure trolley wires wouldn’t snarl Coast Guard operations – not an easy task.

Around the same time, several trolley lines were being debated.

Schumacher said the Harbor Drive route couldn’t match the ridership demand of other routes at the time.

The trolley-to-airport plan crumbled.

Since then, various agencies have flirted with a connection between the trolley and the airport on the other side of the airport, where the trolley line is around the Middletown and Washington Street stops. In fact, you can actually get off at the Middletown stop, cross the street and take a shuttle to the airport but it’s very poorly marked.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer and others are now hoping for a broader fix. Stay tuned for more conversations and debates about this long-running San Diego conundrum in 2019.

The question from Steven Baratte of Hillcrest: “Why must condominium complexes pay for their own garbage and recycling service when they pay local taxes just like single-family homes?”

And Liz Flynn of University Heights: “Could you remind me again why I don’t pay anything for city trash and recycling services, but my neighbors next door do? Some old lawsuit?”

A century-old city law has left the city in a predicament that’s complicated local trash policies ever since.

Back in April 1919, 85 percent of San Diego voters approved the so-called People’s Ordinance which mandated that the city collect trash from homes – and allowed city leaders to levy fees to do it.

The latter part of the ordinance was never implemented, meaning the city must pick up trash at single-family homes without a special fee.

Voters have made some tweaks to the law since 1919. Perhaps the most significant one came three decades ago when the ordinance was updated to bar free service for new apartments and condos.

Since 1986, the city has collected trash from single-family homes but not apartments, condos, private streets or gated communities. Multi-family residents and their landlords have had to contract with private companies to handle their trash.

So San Diegans who live in single-family homes get free trash service and those who don’t must pay up.

In 2009, the San Diego County Grand Jury estimated about 304,000 households in the city benefit from the freebie. The Grand Jury urged city voters to change the ordinance and concluded the annual subsidy cost the city more than $50 million annually.

“It is a costly program that the City of San Diego can no longer afford,” according to the report.

Many other groups and advocates, including the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, have also advocated for policy changes over the years.

Yet the 100-year-old law remains on the books – and it remains a sacred cow.

Asked at a 2013 debate whether he’d consider changing the so-called People’s Ordinance, Mayor Kevin Faulconer had a straightforward response: No.

The question we’ve gotten many times over the years: How much does the California Lottery provide San Diego schools?

VOSD’s Ashly McGlone tackled this question in 2017 – here’s what she found:

The California Lottery has sent cash to the state’s public schools and community colleges for more than three decades, but the payday may be smaller than you think and certainly isn’t the cure-all some voters hoped.

In fact, public records show state lottery money is often a small drop in a much larger bucket that is a school district’s annual budget.

Nonetheless, every time school budget problems are in the news, readers always want to know: What about the lotto?

Thanks to a ballot proposition approved by California voters in 1984, public schools get at least 34 percent of all state lottery revenues based on the size of their student population. The money can only be used for instructional purposes and cannot be used to acquire property or construct facilities. Since 2000, a portion of the money must be spent on instructional materials.

As of 2017, the California State Lottery Act had sent more than $30.95 billion to California’s public schools. More than $1.95 billion – or 6 percent – had gone to San Diego County K-12 public schools, and another $392.9 million had gone to local community colleges, according to data from the state controller’s office.

Out of that money, San Diego Unified School District had received $489.9 million, averaging $15.8 million per year from 1985-86 through 2015-16. Annual lottery revenues dipped as low as $8.85 million in 1991-92.

As of 2017, local schools budgeted $144 in state lottery money per student.

Amid declining San Diego Unified attendance, lottery money was also projected to drop.

San Diego Unified received an all-time high of $21.3 million in 2016, according to state controller data, and expected less than $19.4 million the following school year, according to budget documents.

That may sound like a lot, but in 2016, San Diego Unified projected its general fund revenues would near $1.29 billion, and its expenses would be close to $1.4 billion.

The money has been put to use, though, mostly paying for teacher salaries.

From 2008-09 through 2015-16, San Diego Unified reported spending nearly $137.78 million in state lottery revenue. Sixty percent went toward employee salaries, with the lion’s share – 55 percent or $76.1 million – going to teachers. Just 5 percent – $6.57 million – went to non-teaching staff salaries.

During the same eight-year span, the district spent $28.57 million in lottery money on employee benefits and $26 million on books and supplies, according to a review of annual district budget documents.

Though teacher salaries have benefited the most from state lottery funds, the money made up just 2 percent of the $4.3 billion total spent on teacher salaries those years.

Meanwhile, lottery money accounted for just 1 percent of the $2.26 billion spent on employee benefits and less than half a percent of the $1.56 billion spent on non-teaching employee salaries during the same period.

A drop in the bucket.

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