What Will Voters Decide On New City Hall?
GLORIA PENNER (Host): The economic battleship may be moving slowly but plans to build a new city hall in downtown San Diego have picked up steam. Earlier this week, the San Diego City Council overwhelmingly voted to have the city’s voters decide whether to build the new taxpayer-financed structure. Ricky, why are the council members leaving it up to the voters?
RICKY YOUNG (Watchdog Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, I think that they don’t want to be seen as, you know, what always comes up in these projects is the word ‘Taj Mahal.’ You know, they don’t want to be seen as building themselves a nice, new Taj Mahal so they’re leaving it up to the voters. The case they’re making, as we’ve discussed here before is that they will save money on office space they’re leasing downtown, they will save money on maintenance of the current city hall, which is pretty outdated and has a lot of retrofitting that needs to be done. You know, and somehow that all translates into us saving money by spending $293 million building a new city hall. So they will be trying to make that case to voters, at least those who support it. At this point, as we talked about briefly before the show, Gloria, you know, the City can’t make that case with any public resources at this point. But certainly there are proponents of it on the council, and in their private lives they can go out and advocate for this and, you know, it would result presumably in a couple of things, one is, you know, nicer offices for themselves and the other is some…
PENNER: Oh – oh, they’re going to be long gone by the time this thing is built, right?
YOUNG: Well, some will, some won’t.
YOUNG: I mean, the ones who were elected in ’08, I think, will still…
PENNER: If they get reelected.
YOUNG: Yeah. I mean, maybe Carl DeMaio will set up an outpost somewhere rather than have an office in the new city hall? But, no, I do…
PENNER: Because he’s opposed.
PENNER: He’s adamantly opposed.
YOUNG: Yes, he is. He was the one vote against putting it on – even putting it on the ballot and letting voters decide because he thinks it’s that bad an idea.
PENNER: Well, let’s see if our listeners agree. How bad an idea is it for a new city hall to be built within the foreseeable future, and I say foreseeable, Ricky thinks maybe some of the city council members will still be in office, even though we have term limits here, when that thing is built. How good or how bad an idea is it? How do you feel about that? 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. And Alex from Rancho Bernardo wants to tell us how he feels about it. Alex, you’re on with the editors.
ALEX (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): I always think cities spending money is a bad idea unless it’s for a public welfare. I think (unintelligible) eager to spend millions upgrading the building or, you know, maybe building a new building. How about not spending any money at all. (unintelligible) and downsize their (unintelligible)…
PENNER: Thank you, Alex. I’d let you go on but I think you may need a new telephone. That phone line was pretty bad. But I think we caught what you said. Ricky.
YOUNG: Yeah, I think the point the caller was making was it isn’t a tradeoff between maintaining the current city hall and building a new one. He’s saying we could do what San Diego’s always done, which is defer the maintenance on city hall and not spend the money. I mean, it wasn’t in their budget for the coming year, so why is that suddenly money we’re saving when it’s not even in the budget?
JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, this new facility, 19 stories, 500-some-thousand square feet, supposed to start in 2012, be completed in 2014. But the whole idea is if we spend $37 million or whatever on repairs right now, that in a few years we will still need the building, the new building, and it’s going to cost more to do it. You know, as a caveat, it’s – I see the difficulty here, I see people being laid off, furloughed, outsourcing, all kinds of cutbacks, library services reduced, and yet in the midst of that, the City discussing a new building when it’s the downtown business interests that want the new building, and the citizens are saying how can we afford this? Well, even in good times all major cities have difficulties putting up new city hall structures because people object to them. So…
PENNER: John, why do the downtown business interests want this? Why do we see them being so forthright about wanting it? I mean, we’ve even had names named. It’s not like it’s a secret.
WARREN: Well, I mean, why shouldn’t they? They’ve been successful with everything else they’ve wanted downtown. I mean, they got Petco, they’ve got the redevelopment, they’ve got the highrises, they’ve got the – all of the – I mean, everything they’ve asked for just about, has come online. So a new library’s coming. That’s to placate the masses. Why not get the new building. I mean, they’re going to make money.
PENNER: But what does it do for them?
WARREN: They’re going to make money. They’re going to make money off of it. They’re developers. They’re going to be involved in some way, making dollars and cents. And…
PENNER: So it translates into dollars.
WARREN: It turns – Everyting translates into dollars. And people like Malin Burnham says, you know, he doesn’t think it should be on the ballot. I mean, and some of them are going to have to pay for the campaign if one develops against it, or if there’s a need for a campaign. They’re looking at the fact we didn’t have one in terms of a strong mayor issue so it might not be a cost.
PENNER: Andrew Donohue, we haven’t heard from you. I think the key question is why didn’t the city council vote to put it on the ballot them – I mean, they voted to put it on the ballot. Why didn’t they vote in favor of a city hall themselves after all.
ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): Well, it was very interesting because most of them do – most of them have already stated on the record that they believe that this is a good deal, that this is going to save money for the city. I think they just very clearly couldn’t deal with the perception issue. I mean, if they just passed that at a time like this with everything that’s going on in the city, with everything that’s going on in their own residents’ homes, it would have been a very, very difficult political decision. It was interesting, one of the representatives of the business community who was down at city hall said, you were elected to make tough decisions, this isn’t even a tough decision. But I think they were very, very sensitive about that perception issue.
PENNER: But the Union-Tribune reported that Marti Emerald, council members Marti Emerald, Todd Gloria and Ben Hueso would have preferred to have the council approve building the city hall rather than the voters. Did the three of them cave? What happened?
DONOHUE: Well, do you need to have – You would need to have, I believe, five votes so they must not have had the votes.
YOUNG: Gloria, if…
YOUNG: Several months back, four council members and the mayor said they would absolutely not support this thing if it didn’t go on the ballot. And the math there is if you don’t have the votes of any of those four council members, you can’t put it on the ballot because you need at least five and it might’ve been six votes they needed to get it on the ballot. So…
DONOHUE: You need six to get on the ballot, yeah.
DONOHUE: Well, I think the mayor may have painted himself a little bit in a corner here, too, because I think his people came to sort of regret that they had almost made that promise. But I think to even have entered into the discussions when they were doing it, to even open that door, they needed to say right from the start that, don’t worry, we’re not going to thrust this on you, we’re going to let the public decide. Move down the road a little bit, I think they really wish that they would’ve just been able to make the decision themselves.
YOUNG: It – And, Gloria, if I’m not mistaken, you know, this may be – although Carl DeMaio looks like the big loser on a 7-1 vote, if I remember things correctly, this situation where the four of them came out and said they wouldn’t support it unless it went on the ballot, the whole idea of putting it on the ballot was pushed, you know, the idea first came from Carl DeMaio. So that – The idea that that idea took off is really his victory in that it will go to the voters where he probably has the best chance of killing the thing.
PENNER: Well, it’s interesting because the downtown library, which they approved this month, the city council approved, start building it. All right, that’s not going to a public vote. Why not?
DONOHUE: That’s a great question. I don’t know. I don’t know how you sort of parse the difference. I think the library’s something that’s been, first of all, is just much more appealing to people so you don’t have that sort of political risk that a council member would have to take. There’s the whole argument which I would disagree with that somehow it’s going to be free, that you’re not going to have to pay for it. But I think it all comes down to what the political perception was for council members.
PENNER: So it’s really that. In other words, if it’s not politically popular then it goes to the city – to the voters, and if it is political popular then they vote on it, is that what you’re saying?
DONOHUE: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And I think there’s a real – I think there’s going to be a very interesting sort of perhaps muddled mess on the ballot in November if you have the new city hall on there and then there’s the talk of sales tax…
PENNER: We’re going to talk about that, too.
DONOHUE: …increase getting on the ballot as well and so you do have, in the background, we have a city that’s dealing with a decade straight of large deficits and at the same time that they’re building a library and building a city hall, they’re going to be asking residents for a sales tax increase. It’s going to be very difficult.
PENNER: And something else, too, but I’m going to hold off on that because we’ve got so much to talk about. But, John, I want to hear what you have to say.
WARREN: Well, I want to make two points. On the library, remember, all but about $32 million of the money for that construction is in place between government grants, the school district coming in and all of the pieces. And so that’s not the same situation as city hall where you’re looking at going from scratch. Remember, the deficit that the mayor has projected for the next few – year or so going forward is $260 million a year without this building. If this building is added, it’s $50 million added more to that. If the building is not added, the maintenance and the rents go up over the $50 million. So it’s a no-win either way for them in terms of the deficit.
PENNER: John, just putting it on the ballot costs the taxpayers a quarter of a million dollars. Where does that money come from?
WARREN: Well, that money, according to the legal rulings and everything, that money can’t come from the city. I believe you’re talking about the study.
PENNER: No, no, no. I mean…
WARREN: Oh, the actual ballot.
PENNER: …the actual ballot, putting it on…
WARREN: The actual ballot, yeah, that’s…
DONOHUE: Yeah, that just comes from the budget. I mean, these are – all these little things, when they decide to study something or when they decide to do, you know, put something on the ballot…
DONOHUE: …that’s money that’s coming out that could be going to like we’ll talk about in the future, fire department, police department…
PENNER: Right, right.
WARREN: Other places.
DONOHUE: …these sort of things.
PENNER: Okay, let’s hear from Bernardo in South San Diego. He’s been very patient. Bernardo, thank you for your patience and please join the conversation.
BERNARDO (Caller, South San Diego): Good morning, Gloria and roundtable members.
PENNER: Good morning.
BERNARDO: I just wanted to comment that it seems like the City of San Diego is a dysfunctional family. Here we’ve got unemployment going up, we’ve got a terrible deficit, we’re having brownouts of our fire departments, we’ve got potholes in the city streets but yet all we can think of is spend, spend, spend. I have to commend Carl DeMaio. He appears to be the only voice of reason. For a city hall, you’ve got an increased vacancy in commercial properties, you’ve got property values decreasing, but again it just seems like our city leaders want to keep spending and I think that this is the reason why an increase in taxes is going to be very difficult because we’re not seeing the city making prudent financial decisions to help the city move forward.
PENNER: And, let’s see, you’re in South San Diego so you are a voter for the city council, right? I mean you voted last time, didn’t you?
PENNER: Okay, so just remember, you’ve got the vote. And that’s power. And the vote will be coming around if not this November, two years from now. So just keep that in mind. And thank you for your comment, Bernardo. I think we’re going to try to take one more call. Rachel in Hillcrest is with us now. Rachel, please go ahead.
RACHEL (Caller, Hillcrest): Hi. I almost don’t know what I could add because I think Bernardo said it perfectly. I would add that the homeless problem here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in any major city I’ve lived in and the public transportation issue is just short of abysmal and we are recent transplants to San Diego, we’ve only been here about a year, but the idea of building a new city hall with all of the issues that San Diego has just seems like an obscenity and – or an embarrassment.
PENNER: Well, either one of those would apply, depending on what your point of view is. So, Rachel, thank you very much for your call. Ricky Young.
YOUNG: Right, Bernardo and Rachel’s perception about profligate spending at city hall is certainly something that a lot of people perceive, including, as Bernardo said, Carl DeMaio. But, you know, it should be noted that in the time I’ve been here, what I’ve seen is all of these decisions viewed through a lens of we’ll only do it if it doesn’t cost money. So there’s sort of a public spin that goes on anyway that it’s not going to cost money. The city hall is going to save money. The library is all this grant money that we couldn’t spend on anything else. You know, the convention center will only do it if the numbers pan out. You know, and the Chargers stadium, they may build downtown. Our Watchdog column this morning talks about the company that looked at Petco Park recently tends to do studies that show that the numbers pan out for stadiums, that they’re good investments. And so, you know, you may see fairly soon a study saying that a Charger stadium downtown, lo and behold, would be a good investment for taxpayers. So…
PENNER: All right, I want to thank Rachel and Bernardo for their calls. I want to get comments from the rest of our panel because they want to respond to Rachel, Bernardo and Ricky but we’re going to go into a break and when we come back, I think we also need to talk about what the possibilities are that we are going to see a city sales tax increase on the ballot especially in wake of the tragic death of a two-year-old Mira Mesa boy who choked to death on a gumball. It’s brought new attention to delays in fire rescue response times because of the brownout policy. So we’ll talk about that when we come back and, of course, we’ll take your calls as well. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.
PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. I’m at the roundtable with Ricky Young of the San Diego Union-Tribune and John Warren, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint and, from voiceofsandiego.com (sic), Andrew Donohue. And we are talking about all the things that might possibly be on your ballot if you’re a voter in the city of San Diego. All of them cost money. And, actually one of the might bring in some money. It still costs you money, you, the taxpayer, especially if it’s an increase in a city sales tax. But it’s interesting to see how these are all being positioned. Now, Ricky had a point just before the break. What was the point?
YOUNG: I think I was just saying that these project – Although the caller seemed to think that the city’s spending a lot of money, that these projects are always couched in terms of, well, it’s not really going to cost us money, so…
PENNER: Okay, and, Andrew, you have been eager to respond to Ricky.
DONOHUE: Well, first of all, and I completely agree with Ricky, I mean, if we’re going to build these projects and we’re going to spend money on it, why don’t our leaders just tell us that these are things that are worthy of our time and our resources and that are going to make our city a better place, not, hey, it’s free, we should just take it. I mean, that’s like buying a couch because it’s twenty-five bucks and thinking that’s going to get it by for your family forever. But I really love the way Rachel put it when she used a term that I haven’t actually heard used in this discussion yet, ‘obscenity.’ And I think that really illustrates the disconnect that’s happening when our leaders are focusing so much time and energy on projects like these and people that live in our neighborhoods are seeing them decay. They’re seeing their libraries being closed more and more hours, they’re seeing their roads deteriorate, and they’re wondering why so much time and energy is being spent on these projects. They may be good projects but if you’re not doing anything and our leaders aren’t putting together any sort of real plan to fix a decade-long problem at city hall, then there’s no amount of spin that’ll make these projects okay for people.
PENNER: Well, just think of it right now, I mean, we’re talking that a new city hall will be on the ballot. The push for an increase in the city sales tax is on again. The mayor had backed off from his support of it but now there is a new push and, of course, John, the circumstances are very tragic circumstances, a child died and there’s concern that it – that there was a delay in the fire rescue department getting there. But the question is, you know, if there is a push to put a city sales tax increase on, do we know that it would – that the revenue would actually go to cutting out the brownouts? So might that go to somewhere else?
WARREN: Well, see, that goes back to this whole argument of earmarking funds. If the sales tax is couched in terms of being earmarked for preventing brownouts, yes, people would accept it and I believe they would go for it because this is a life and death area and it can happen on a greater scale and on a recurring basis. But if it’s just a sales tax, which is the way it would probably be because I don’t know if there’s authority to designate it as such, then I see resistance because, as you say, there’s no guarantee.
PENNER: Okay, well, let’s hear from Eileen in Mission Hills. She has an opinion on this. Eileen, thanks for calling and you’re on with the editors.
EILEEN (Caller, Mission Hills): Yes, thank you. I am concerned about this issue of emergency response but given that the people of San Diego are unlikely to tax – vote to tax themselves, I see repeatedly those rescues at the Torrey Pines cliffs, Blacks Beach area by people who go beyond the sign that says you’re not supposed to go here and I think they need to put a price tag on the rescue effort.
PENNER: That’s an interesting point of view, and actually there’ve been other points of view as to how the fire rescue department might be able to give up its – the brownouts. What were some of the other ideas, John?
WARREN: Well, first of all, in terms of her point, many cities have done just that. They put a price tag and they bill the recipient of the service after the service is rendered.
PENNER: Assuming that the – there is…
WARREN: Assuming that they’re able to…
PENNER: …that they can pay.
WARREN: …that they can pay because some people can pay, the group she’s referring to is able to pay. I don’t think that would help in the situation that we’re talking about with the firefighters because as the fire chief pointed out, the station was a block away but it just happened to be their turn to rotate out to help someone else.
PENNER: Isn’t Councilman Tony Young talking about let’s dip into our reserves? This is kind of an emergency situation. We should not put lives at risk. Dip into the reserves.
DONOHUE: Exactly. He suggested dipping into reserves, cutting outside contracts and, I believe, just cutting other departments, you know, really sort of – I think what you’re seeing is now a number of people, Tony Young, Ben Hueso, Jan Goldsmith, the city attorney, sort of stepping into this vacuum that was filled after the mayor’s sort of grand compromise fell apart a couple weeks ago. So, yeah, Tony, you know, I think hats off to Tony. He not only proposed, you know, spending money on fire but he tried to find a way that you could actually cut something else to find that money.
YOUNG: So, yeah, the math on this is interesting. I mean, we had a front page story this morning suggesting that the death of Bentley Do choking, you know, when the firefighters didn’t get there in time might give some more impetus to a sales tax measure getting on the ballot this fall. Selling that, I think, would be a little difficult given some of the math. The brownouts, which is idling some fire engines to save some money, save $11 million. A sales tax would bring in $103 million a year. So suspicious callers like the woman on the phone who thinks that we should charge the people falling off the cliff, you know, I think voters can picture a lot of ways that you could save or fill an $11 million gap without passing a $103 million sales tax. That doesn’t mean that it won’t have support on the council and it won’t get on the ballot and that, you know, and it’d be a very interesting call if we had both that and the city hall on the ballot.
DONOHUE: And I always disagree with the idea that San Diego – San Diegans wouldn’t pass a tax. I think if you had a coalition of a group of leaders together pushing for something, very clearly laying out why we needed it and you coupled it with other cuts, that people really would get behind this. This idea that we’re this sort of tax-hating old conservative bastion, I think, is very outdated.
DONOHUE: The fact of the matter is, people have been too scared to ask and too scared to put together some sort of real comprehensive plan.
PENNER: Ricky. Ricky.
YOUNG: The fire parcel tax, the countywide fire parcel tax passed handily in San Diego, not so much in the back country where they may need it more but…
DONOHUE: Nobody was championing that at all.
DONOHUE: It didn’t have a single leader and it passed.
WARREN: The fires were – but the fires were fresh enough in the memories of people, and the home losses, for that to be the motivation in and of itself.
YOUNG: Well, I think Bentley Do is going to be high in the mind of people.
PENNER: That’s the little boy.
YOUNG: Yeah. So…
PENNER: Yes. You know, we want to save a little time for your story, Andrew.
DONOHUE: That’s fine. I’m enjoying this conversation.
PENNER: I can see you are but there – we have one caller and I – Daniel, if you can make your comment really, really brief we’ll get you on. Go ahead, Daniel.
DANIEL (Caller): Yes, when I ran for city council we told them that there was over a $200 million deficit in infrastructure and it needed to be fixed and then they voted on a ballpark, put that on the ballot, they voted it and now we have a $74 million debt. You know, again, they don’t fix things here at city hall.
PENNER: Okay. Thank you, Daniel. And, you know what, Daniel’s got the last word on this.