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Convention Center Expansion Initiative Fails Fast-Track To 2018 Ballot

The San Diego Convention Center, March 4, 2018.

Photo by Milan Kovacevic

Above: The San Diego Convention Center, March 4, 2018.

A citizens initiative seeking to expand the San Diego Convention Center and fund homeless services failed to immediately qualify for the November 2018 ballot on Wednesday, casting doubt on the future of one of Mayor Kevin Faulconer's top priorities.

But in a last-ditch effort to save the project, Faulconer said he would ask the City Council on Thursday to present voters with another plan to raise the hotel room tax for similar purposes. Council President Myrtle Cole called a special meeting for 4 p.m. Thursday to discuss the mayor's request. Councilman Mark Kersey, who is on vacation, is scheduled to participate in the meeting remotely from Ohio.

The San Diego City Clerk announced the news about the citizens' initiative in a memo Wednesday morning, saying a random sampling of signatures "shows that the projected number of valid signatures is within 95 percent to 110 percent of the number of signatures needed to declare the petition sufficient." This triggers a more exhaustive review of all the 114,720 signatures supporting the initiative, to be completed by Sept. 20.

The deadline for cities to give initiatives to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters for placement on the November 2018 ballot is 5 p.m. Friday. Extensive signature verification can take weeks.

City Councilman David Alvarez on Twitter called the news a "colossal failure." Supporters of the initiative had spent more than $1.4 million as of June 30, much of it on campaign consultants, polling and petition circulating.

RELATED: Citizens Initiative To Expand San Diego Convention Center Starts Collecting Signatures

The measure would raise San Diego's hotel room tax from 12.5 percent to as much as 15.75 percent to pay for the long-planned expansion of the downtown Convention Center, estimated to cost around $850 million. A smaller portion of the money raised from the tax hike would go to programs to address homelessness and to repair public infrastructure.

Faulconer released a statement appearing to acknowledge that the citizens' initiative itself would not be on this year's ballot. But a report from city staffers on the mayor's proposal showed it was largely based on, if not identical to, the citizens initiative.

"The language has been drafted by staff and the City Attorney's Office to reflect that this is a city measure that will be placed on the ballot by the City Council," mayoral spokeswoman Ashley Bailey said via email. "The proposal is fundamentally no different than what the mayor has supported publicly and has been working on for years."

Last year Faulconer presented a different hotel room tax measure to the City Council to fund the Convention Center expansion, homeless programs and infrastructure. He withdrew that measure from consideration when the council refused to call a special election so it could be voted on in 2017.

Any special tax increase placed on the ballot by the City Council would need the approval of two-thirds of San Diego voters in order to pass.

Laura Fink, a spokeswoman for the campaign, said in a statement that the group "is in full support" of the mayor's request to place an initiative on the ballot.

RELATED: Cole Delays Talks On Affordable Housing Bond

City Council members in June approved a lease agreement that would have cleared the way for the Convention Center expansion to take place on Fifth Avenue Landing, a small strip of land on San Diego Bay. That agreement involved a $5 million "down payment" that, if no Convention Center expansion funding initiative is approved, could be forfeited to developers seeking to build a hotel and hostel on the property.

Over the past several months, council members had also been weighing two alternative ballot measures dealing with homelessness. One was a $900 million affordable housing bond proposed by the nonprofit San Diego Housing Federation, while another was a separate hotel room tax increase proposed by Councilman Alvarez.

The City Council voted 5-2 this week not to place Alvarez's proposal on the ballot. The San Diego Housing Federation, meanwhile, agreed to withdraw its proposal and wait for the 2020 election.

The federation's executive director, Stephen Russell, said he was "deeply disappointed" that there may not be any local revenue measures for homelessness and affordable housing on the November ballot in San Diego. The city could now miss out on new state grant funding for affordable housing and homelessness in the next two years, he said, because other cities and counties may out-compete San Diego by offering more local matching dollars.

A citizens initiative seeking to expand the San Diego Convention Center and fund homeless services failed to immediately qualify for the November 2018 ballot on Wednesday, casting doubt on the future of one of Mayor Kevin Faulconer's top priorities.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include Mayor Kevin Faulconer's reaction, and the plans for a city council meeting on Thursday.


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