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San Diego Port Cities Divided Over Money, Projects

The port of San Diego is an agency established by the state of California. It's responsible for development and protection of 33 miles of waterfront. The port has a budget of nearly $200 million. But

San Diego Port Cities Divided Over Money, Projects

The port of San Diego is an agency established by the state of California. It's responsible for development and protection of 33 miles of waterfront. The port has a budget of nearly $200 million. But there is deep discord among the five port cities about which of them is getting a fair share of that money. Here's KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma with more.

 (Photo courtesy of the Port of San Diego)


The five port cities -- San Diego, National City, Coronado, Chula Vista and Imperial Beach -- generate $90 million in real estate waterfront leases each year. San Diego brings in about 80 percent of that. But San Diego receives proportionately the least money of any of the cities to pay for things like police and fire services.

“The resulting outcome is that San Diego city taxpayers are ripped off once again,” said Carl DeMaio, San Diego councilman. 

DeMaio blames the inequity on port culture and poor leadership by the city's three port commissioners.

"Our representatives have not looked out for San Diego taxpayers. In fact, they have been part of the voting majority to ship the money from the city of San Diego which is financially on the brink of bankruptcy, down to these cities," DeMaio said.

"Does San Diego City get its share of what the revenues are? I think that's a question that we're all struggling with right now."


Laurie Black is San Diego's representative on the port commission.

"What is each city's piece of the pie,” said Black. “Is it supposed to be five equal pieces?"

The pieces are far from equal. Imperial Beach brings in the least real estate revenue to the port. But it receives the most - about $3.7 million annually or nearly 25 percent of its general fund from the port. That's nearly four times what San Diego gets. Former San Diego City Manager Jack McGrory says 20 years ago Imperial Beach was nearly bankrupt.

"And the port stepped in an worked out of a deal where the port began to shift more of its revenues down to Imperial Beach to support it," said McGrory.

This financial arrangement makes no sense to former San Diego Port Commissioner Peter Q. Davis.

"That's a very socialistic, liberal attitude…that we're going to support them because they're the least deserving of the five cities. That's indefensible in my opinion. The city of Imperial Beach is being subsidized by the city of San Diego," Davis said.

Imperial Beach Port Commissioner Mike Bixler denies it. He says the Legislature ordered the port to take responsibility for Imperial Beach's tidelands in the early 1990s.

"It is a very broad misunderstanding for folks to say that the port district is subsidizing the city of Imperial Beach,” said Bixler. “What the port is paying for a is a series of service contracts, fireman, sheriffs, animal control, maintenance beach grooming so on and so on."

Even if it is a subsidy…

"It is a deserved subsidy," said

National City's Mayor Ron Morrison wonders how San Diego leaders can complain at all. He says San Diego has the vibrant waterfront including recreational sites like Seaport Village. 

"While the city of San Diego provides a lot of revenue for the port, they receive a lot of indirect money from the port through all the stuff that goes on tidelands whether it's hotels, cruise ships, the parks, the whole embarcadero all of that is done by the port that brings money into the city -- it's a huge revenue generator," Morrison said.

Imperial Beach, Morrison says, could develop its own waterfront land to generate more money in sales, property and tourism taxes. Instead, he says Imperial Beach maintains its natural waterfront to meet environmental rules so San Diego can build on its bayfront. That's an argument ex-Port Commissioner Davis doesn't accept.

"That is just silliness and that is just opportunism talking,” said Davis. “If you look at Imperial Beach, it's basically swampland. The reason they use Imperial Beach for environmental mitigation is frankly there is no other use for it on an economically viable basis," Davis said.

And economic viability….at least for San Diego says Councilman Carl DeMaio is what the whole debate over the port is about.

"It is quite possible that if the port does not get its act together and start being more transparent and showing more returns on investment to San Diego taxpayers, we ought to reconsider whether we should even have a port," DeMaio said.

Amita Sharma, KPBS News.