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Politics

San Diego’s stormwater system needs major work. Are voters willing to pay for it?

San Diego City Council President Sean Elo-Rivera announced plans Wednesday to ask voters for more revenue to fund stormwater infrastructure and disaster recovery efforts.

The announcement at a meeting of the council's Rules Committee came nine days after a heavy storm overwhelmed the city's stormwater channels and caused flash flooding on freeways and in neighborhoods including Southcrest, Mountain View and Encanto.

San Diego officials have long been aware of the deep backlog of repairs to stormwater infrastructure. A report released in January found the city would need an additional $1.6 billion to fully fund all its stormwater needs. That deficit has more than doubled in the past five years and is now larger than the unfunded needs of the city's roads, streetlights and sidewalks combined.

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"Today, I can think of no more pressing need than stormwater infrastructure and disaster recovery," Elo-Rivera said. "Those storms will keep coming, and the climate won't stop changing, while we get bogged down by politics and bureaucracy. The time for action is now."

Elo-Rivera's office said he is still developing the details of his proposal, such as what the city would tax and by how much. But it would likely need the approval of six city councilmembers to be placed on the November ballot.

The threshold of approval that the measure would need from voters is still unclear. For decades, California law has required a two-thirds majority for voters to approve local taxes dedicated to a specific purpose.

But a statewide proposition set for the Nov. 5 general election would lower that threshold to 55% if the taxes would fund affordable housing or public infrastructure. The proposition states that if it's approved, the lower threshold would also apply to local tax measures that appear on the same Nov. 5 ballot.

Whether the inclusion of "disaster recovery" in a local stormwater tax measure would count as public infrastructure is unclear.

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In February 2022, San Diego's Stormwater Department released the results of polling to test the viability of a local tax measure to fund stormwater infrastructure. The poll asked voters whether they would support a tax of 4 cents, 4.5 cents or 5 cents per square foot of a property's impermeable surface. That would scale the tax to how much stormwater runs off a property, while exempting gardens or yards where water can be absorbed by the earth.

All three tax options won support from more than 55% of voters, even when respondents were fed critical statements about the measure. The two-thirds threshold was cleared only after voters were read favorable statements, and even then, two-thirds support was within the margin of error.

When asked what priorities were most important to them, 87% of respondents said protecting the local supply of clean drinking water was either important or very important. Only 66% said the same for maintaining stormwater channels or preventing flooding.

At least one other local tax measure will be on the Nov. 5 ballot: a countywide half-cent sales tax increase to fund transportation infrastructure. That measure qualified for the ballot via a signature gathering campaign, meaning it needs only a simple majority to pass.

Councilmember Raul Campillo is also seeking to ask voters for a sales tax increase that would boost the city's general fund and help overcome its chronic budget deficits. Such a tax measure would need only a simple majority to pass because the funds would not be dedicated to a specific purpose.

The 2024 primary election is March 5. Find in-depth reporting on each race to help you understand what's on your ballot.