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Convention Center Measure Doesn't Clear the Bar Required for a Special Election

We should not and I cannot support a special election in 2017 for the proposed transit occupancy tax hike measure.

Expanding our Convention Center is critical to the economic growth in our region – it already provides $1.1 billion to our economy each year and could produce millions more for local businesses and neighborhood services. That’s why I supported the approved contiguous expansion in 2012 and still support it today. And it’s why, when the mayor first proposed an increase to the transit occupancy tax in his State of the City address, I was optimistic there was a funding plan that could combine the stakeholder support and revenue necessary to make the expansion a reality. I wasn’t alone in my optimism that night, nor was I alone in cautioning that the details would be critical to putting a viable proposal forward to voters. More than four months later, we still have a long way to go to get this right.

Commentary - in-story logoWhen the first concept of this proposal came before the City Council’s Rules Committee in April, I outlined a number of concerns that could undermine both the policy and political success of the measure. At that hearing, and in a subsequent memo to the mayor’s office with Councilwomen Barbara Bry and Georgette Gómez, I asked for:

• assurance that the land necessary for the expansion would actually be available

• substantiation for the proposal’s financial assumptions and projections

• potential recapture of elections costs to mitigate the budget impact

• protections against cost over-runs

• clearly defined homeless services, and dedication of any unanticipated revenue to homelessness needs; and

• re-evaluation of the total amount of TOT possible and the portion of resources reserved for homeless programs.

With little or no movement on these questions as of our May 22 City Council hearing, my concerns remain.

I agree with the mayor that a Convention Center expansion and dedicated funding for infrastructure and homeless services are crucial priorities facing our city. We are in the midst of a homelessness crisis demanding a stronger response, and I’m pushing for better approaches and stronger coordination throughout our region. I know how critically we need more local dollars sooner rather than later to make a major difference on the street saving lives, but this proposal lacks sufficient revenue or protections to ensure we get the impact we need.

We have to be realistic about the challenges we face and whether the proposal before us is workable this year. Two months after my colleagues and I raised our initial concerns, opposition has only grown while enthusiasm is fading. We saw last year with Measure A how difficult it is to achieve two-thirds voter support with anything less than near-universal support. Yet this measure has not even been approved for the ballot by the City Council and there is already funded opposition and clear resistance from the stakeholders and community groups whose support should signal a viable proposal for jobs, housing and infrastructure.

We must also appreciate that voters showed us the values important to them last November. I strongly supported Measure L along with 73 percent of my constituents, and when considering a special election, we need to remember that voters sent us a message that went beyond simply supporting good government. Voters told us loud and clear that they expect to be included in the process and make the biggest decisions when the most San Diegans vote, and I’m unconvinced we face the emergency a special election under Measure L requires.

Finally, every element of an investment this size should be a catalyst for public good, and any convention center expansion must include a strong commitment to our local working families. I do not have enough confidence in the quality of jobs or community benefits that this proposal would generate, or that the critical resources for infrastructure and homelessness are adequately protected. Yet the special election would cost at least $5 million, and without everything in place, it at best provides a half-measure that likely delays more substantial investment in critical areas, and at worst poisons the well for years by alienating the voters who told us specifically to stop doing business this way.

For all these reasons, we should not and I cannot support a special election in 2017 for the proposed TOT measure.

I deeply appreciate the efforts by all stakeholders throughout this process to find a viable solution this year. Feedback from the business community, Convention Center leadership, homeless advocates, tourism experts, labor organizations and community groups has been invaluable, and I see clear consensus to expand the Convention Center, make major progress on housing and homelessness, and ensure the solutions benefit every San Diego neighborhood.

I am eager to continue working with all stakeholders, including the mayor, to produce a package for voters in the November 2018 election that unambiguously defines our needs, costs and solutions, includes safeguards for the well-being of all those impacted and keeps faith with all San Diegans who told us they expect to be a central part of the process from start to finish. They deserve no less, and I believe San Diego will rise to the occasion and meet the biggest needs facing our city.

The prudent and responsible way to get there is with a more thoughtful and inclusive process, and I know it will produce a stronger coalition around better policy in 2018 that makes the wait worthwhile.

Chris Ward is the city councilman representing District 3.

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