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San Diego Firehouse Bond Fails At City Council

A fire truck at Mission Valley's fire station, Nov. 2, 2015.
Nicholas McVicker
A fire truck at Mission Valley's fire station, Nov. 2, 2015.

San Diego Firehouse Bond Fails At City Council
A proposal to build 18 fire stations in San Diego failed to get enough votes on the City Council on Tuesday. The measure looked to be headed for the November ballot, but one council member withdrew her support.

A ballot measure to build 18 fire stations with a property tax increase quietly vanished at the San Diego City Council on Tuesday, as it failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority on the council to advance.

The measure has been discussed for months and appeared to have enough support as recently as last week, when six council members voted to move it forward. California law requires a two-thirds majority to approve special tax increases.

Councilwoman Lori Zapf, a Republican, joined the council’s five Democrats — Sherri Lightner, Todd Gloria, Myrtle Cole, David Alvarez and Marti Emerald — in voting to place the measure on the November ballot. But when a follow-up vote came before the council Tuesday, Zapf voted “no."

She explained her vote by announcing she was exploring an alternative proposal that would build five fire stations and repair existing public safety buildings. Zapf then asked Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s council liaison whether the mayor could support such a measure. The liaison began to answer yes before the city attorney’s representative halted discussion because Zapf’s proposal was not on the council’s agenda.

In an email to KPBS on Wednesday, Zapf said:

"I initially supported the Fire Bond, however, I was uneasy that the bond language never addressed our current public safety assets that are in poor condition. I changed my vote and have put forth a new proposal that will build the most needed fire stations in Council District 4 to address response times and repair the additional 25 public safety assets that are not in good condition. The council can vote to approve this plan and it does not have to be approved by the voters because there is NOT a tax increase."

Zapf has so far offered few details on her alternative, but she said it would use lease revenue bonds and money dedicated for infrastructure repair under Proposition H, which voters approved in June.

The city’s independent budget analyst has issued several reports warning the city may need to explore tax increases or other new revenue streams to pay for unfunded infrastructure needs, estimated at nearly $2 billion or more over the next five years.

Tuesday's vote was the last item on the council’s agenda and came after 5:30 p.m., when most members of the public had left. The vote was largely overshadowed by the council’s approval earlier in the afternoon of a ban on single-use plastic bags.

Emerald had championed the firehouse measure, which would have initially been financed by general obligation bonds and would have needed the support of two-thirds of San Diego voters in November. The bonds would have raised $205 million.

“Look into your hearts,” Emerald pleaded to her colleagues before the vote Tuesday. “Think about your own neighborhoods, the block you live on, and how you can today make a difference in the public safety of everybody you know and your communities at large.”

The deficit of fire stations in San Diego was laid out in a 2011 report by the public safety consulting firm Citygate. The report found San Diego was in need of 19 new fire stations, 10 of which were critical.

Faulconer’s office commissioned an update to the report, due in the fall, that would analyze the use of real-time traffic congestion data and its potential to speed up the fire department's response times.