It's Not Too Late for the City Council to Reverse Course on the Hotel Tax Plan - Voice of San Diego

Opinion UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

It's Not Too Late for the City Council to Reverse Course on the Hotel Tax Plan

The measure to raise hotel taxes in order to fund a Convention Center expansion has hit some hurdles, all of which can still be overcome.

Last year, city of San Diego tax revenues grew more slowly than expenses despite pension reforms. Even as a Republican, Mayor Kevin Faulconer knows there is little or no fat left to cut in the city budget.

Commentary - in-story logoThe revenue-expense gap is likely to continue for up to 30 years without new revenues. Unlike the federal government, cities aren’t allowed deficit budgets and they can’t print money. The choice we face is finding new revenue or cutting the bare bones services we suffer from in San Diego.

The mayor’s solution to this problem is a good one: a hotel tax increase to fund an expanded Convention Center while financing programs to ease homelessness and repair local roads.

In the spirit of transparency, I recently left my post as a commissioner for the Port of San Diego. Ethics rules bar me for a year from being paid to advance the Convention Center expansion, which sits on Port land. My business partner, Tony Manolatos, serves as the tourism coalition’s spokesman, but I do not advise or counsel on the project.

I urge the City Council to immediately reverse course and put the mayor’s measure on the ballot in a special election in 2017. They have a few more weeks to do it. The chances for victory are far better this year than in 2018, when a barrage of national and state political campaigns will drown out the importance of the mayor’s measure. Wasting another year is very bad news for our city.

The measure has hit some hurdles, all of which can still be overcome.

One big issue has been the flashy SoccerCity proposal to redevelop the Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley. It was concocted in secret for two years by private investors until it exploded like an asteroid headed for Earth. Overnight, it became the bright shiny object, bedazzling the political establishment and sucking oxygen from the room at precisely the worst time.

Unlike the Convention Center expansion, planned in public for 12 years, the SoccerCity plan has not been honed through public participation. The SoccerCity proposal deserves its fair day on the ballot in 2018 as the City Charter suggests – the mayor and City Council should not let this private development obfuscate the need for a Convention Center, homeless and roads vote now.

Another issue has been business people and their political allies who are against including project labor agreements –  pacts between the city and organized labor groups –  in the measure. Republican hatred of labor unions blinds them to both the legal and political realities – no major project on city or Port of San Diego land is going to get built without paying prevailing wages. Period.

Think it through: there are now about 115,000 more Democrats than Republicans in San Diego; more Democrats than Republicans in eight out of nine Council Districts. Seemingly smart business people have been smoking something if they imagine that union leaders – by far the most potent force in Democratic politics – will turn a blind eye to the best interests of the workers whose dues pay their salaries.

City Attorney Mara Elliot has warned that including a project labor agreement deal inside a tax measure is legally treacherous. A way to resolve this impasse is a detailed contract between unions and the city (typically in the past these have been a memoranda of understanding) that would become effective upon voter adoption of the hotel tax.

To those who stand with me on the left, like you I supported (and donated money to help pay for) Measure L, which passed last year and requires that voter-initiated measures appear on the general election ballot to ensure maximum voter participation. Council-initiated measures like the mayor’s Convention Center, homeless and roads proposal are specifically eligible for special elections. The Council should invoke Measure L, enabling them to head off our fiscal crisis before it arrives.

Killing a special election this year means worse days ahead for the homeless, our local streets and city finances. I hope the City Council reverses course immediately. They have only a few weeks to do it.

Bob Nelson is a former Port of San Diego commissioner and Convention Center Corporation board member. Since 1979, he has directed ballot measure campaigns across the United States. Nelson’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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