By Norma Damashek
A whopper of a ballot petition has been stalking the city these past few months. It’s a 77-page proposal with the unwieldy title “The Citizens’ Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources.”
Whatever good intentions it may once have had (and I don’t doubt they existed), the “Citizens’ Plan” detoured down a back alley and emerged out the other end as a grotesque, multi-headed hydra.
Now, I’ve read the “Citizens’ Plan.” Then I read it again… and again. But for the heck of me, I can’t figure it out. And I’m not the only one!
In fact, nobody I know has gotten past the first few pages of the “Citizens’ Plan.” I’m talking about community activists… city officials… political candidates… involved citizens. Nobody I know knows anybody else who understands what’s in the “Citizens’ Plan.” Not one of them can figure out whose purpose it serves and how it would impact the future of our city.
It’s not the way good government is supposed to work.
So what’s the “Citizens’ Plan” really about?
Is it an attempt to stop the expansion of the Convention Center?
Is it a too-clever scheme to short-circuit a lawsuit against San Diego’s hoteliers and their Tourism Management District?
Is it about raising San Diego’s hotel taxes (TOTs)?
Or is it an ploy to grease the skids for a downtown Chargers Stadium? a multi-purpose-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink “convadium” that could – with canny finagling – be financed with TOTs and other public funds?
(Remember how former-Padres owner John Moores coerced voters into building him a new ballpark with the slogan: It’s more than a ballpark? Last time I checked, the city was still paying off Petco Park bonds while the place sits empty most of the year.
What’s the “convadium” slogan? It’s more than a convention center! more than a stadium! Could be it’s just one more head on San Diego’s corporate-welfare beast.)
Oddly, people I’ve trusted and respected in past times are working to put the densely-legalese, multi-headed “Citizens’ Plan” on the November ballot. They’ve attached themselves at the hip to a moneyed group of special interests, some of whom I have little reason to trust when it comes to manipulating city laws and policy.
It’s a peculiar collective: San Diego environmental lawyer Cory Briggs; former councilperson Donna Frye; former Padres owner John Moores; former State legislator Steve Peace, now on the John Moores payroll; San Diego Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani; land developer Fred Maas, currently special advisor to Chargers honcho Dean Spanos…
Their “Citizens’ Plan” creates a master vision for our city, moving huge development projects in and out of downtown and Mission Valley and fabricating “facts” that make you wince: “The Qualcomm Stadium site and the City’s downtown have long been linked… this link is as natural as the connection tourists and residents have to the Pacific Ocean and its waterways.” Huh? Really?
Here’s an alternative way to picture it: “The Citizens’ Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources” is really a local version of the well-known computer game, SimCity.
San Diego-style SimCity is played by a high-stakes team of sports and tourism professionals, land developers, and would-be power brokers, using ballot-box planning to reconstruct the San Diego landscape.
It’s the biggest game in town – where profit-making, awarding and withholding development rights, manipulation of the public, and behind-the-scenes deal-making determine the city’s winners and the losers.
“The Citizens’ Plan” is the antithesis of transparency and open government. It’s the business as usual outcome of hidden agendas and private wheeling and dealing.
Any initiative as dependent as this one is on countless moving parts, legalese small print, and unenforceable assurances should be X-rated and banned from voter ballots – no matter how good some of its intentions might once have been.
To help you make an informed decision here is some pertinent information about 1) TOTs and 2) the ballot measure known as “The Citizens’ Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources”
(The information I offer is as accurate as I can make it. If I don’t get everything exactly right, it’s not for lack of effort and diligence in penetrating the dense, painfully-long document that you, as fellow voters, will be facing on your November ballot.)
1)Taxing hotel guests provides a reliable source of revenue for a city’s General Fund and for tourism promotion and marketing.
TOTs (Transient Occupancy Taxes / hotel taxes) are one of the city’s most valuable and versatile slush funds – a handy revenue source for political leaders as well as for a host of the city’s business and cultural institutions.
San Diego’s first TOTs were imposed on tourists in 1964 at a rate of 4%. At that time, cities had control over how high to set the TOT rate, a condition that was changed in 1996 by Proposition 218, which required a public vote for tax increases. For the past 22 years our city’s TOTs have held steady at a rate of 10.5%.
The city council decides how to spend TOT revenues. TOTs have been divvied up over the decades this way:
* Roughly 40% of TOT revenues to tourism promotion and marketing
* Roughly 50% of annual revenues for general governmental purposes
* Roughly 10% to a reserve fund, used at city council discretion
* Set-asides from above categories for administrative costs
Here are a few specific examples of where TOT funds have gone: Balboa Park/Mission Bay improvements, the trolley extension, safety at Qualcomm Stadium and Petco Park, arts festivals, cultural institutions, business groups, the Super Bowl, redevelopment at the Naval Training Center, bond payments for the downtown ballpark, special events like the Republican National Convention, the San Diego Convention Center, the Chargers Stadium ticket guarantee, the Regional Economic Development Corporation, and very briefly the Housing Trust Fund.
The city’s system for managing TOTs is convoluted and in need of better public review. One glaring flaw is that there are no independent audits of the TOT program. The City Treasurer collects TOTs and reviews, administers, implements, and enforces all things TOT. Independent oversight is absent.
A simple solution: San Diego’s independent City Auditor should perform regular audits of the huge and lucrative TOT program.
2) “The Citizens’ Plan for the Responsible Management of Major Tourism and Entertainment Resources” changes city laws governing TOTs. It also changes city laws governing environmental, development, land ownership, and planning policies in the city, mainly in Mission Valley and downtown San Diego. There are innumerable moving parts to keep track of, as follows:
THE “CITIZEN’S PLAN” ASKS SAN DIEGO VOTERS TO:
- Increase the TOT rate from 10.5% to 14-15.5% (depending on hotel size)
- Do away with the original TOT formula for funding tourism promotion and marketing
- Deposit TOT revenues into the General Fund (from which they can be removed and transferred by the City Council at will)
- Repeal the Tourism Marketing District, which now permits hoteliers to collect a 2% surcharge over and above the usual 10.5% TOTs
- Set up two “voluntary programs that encourage hoteliers to self-assess.” Hoteliers could choose to keep 4% of TOT remittances if they agree to certain conditions, including financing a convention annex separate from the existing Convention Center and assuming responsibility for promoting the city
- Prohibit the expansion of the Convention Center at its existing location
- Authorize (but not require) private management to oversee and maintain the Convention Center by a private contractor under supervision of an appointed governing board
- Suspend the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review for any proposal to construct a new multi-purpose sports stadium in Mission Valley to replace Qualcomm Stadium
- Authorize (but not require) the city to sell the Chargers Stadium site in Mission Valley if the Chargers leave San Diego or build a new stadium downtown
- Require the vacated Qualcomm Stadium site to be sold to specified public agencies and redeveloped for “low impact” purposes, which might include student/ faculty housing and classrooms, administrative buildings, commercial buildings, research and development facilities, environmental preservation, recreation, and other undefined uses
DON”T STOP YET, THERE’S MORE TO COME:
- Allow for public financing of a new Mission Valley or downtown Chargers Stadium, to be determined by a separate vote of the people
- Permit the city auditor to audit TOT accounts (hooray for this provision! But the city can make this happen without a public vote. And while they’re at it, the city should reinstate TOT funding for the Housing Trust Fund)
- Substitute public-private partnership incentives for city subsidies to gain open space/park access in Mission Valley and on the San Diego bay waterfront
- Update the Municipal Code to enhance tourism goals via planning, management, and tourism/entertainment facility improvements
- Create an unlimited number of TOT-financed private “improvement districts.” These would be governed by appointed owner-association boards to oversee construction of unspecified structures, facilities, and/or infrastructure and be able to increase assessments to pay for incurred debt and financial loans. Convention-related facilities or entertainment/ professional sports facilities would not be permitted in this category
- Require the initial improvement district to be a “Downtown Tourism-Financed Infrastructure District”
- Require the second improvement district to be a citywide “Suburban Tourism-financed Infrastructure District”
- Require ministerial (automatic) approval of these private, TOT-financed improvement districts. Infrastructure districts would not require a city council vote or public hearings
JUST A FEW MORE TO GO:
- Create a Downtown Convention and Entertainment Overlay Zone
- Authorize development of a convention center, an unlimited range of sports facilities, or a combination of these two. See “convadium”…
- Suspend the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) for all projects in the above referenced Downtown Convention and Entertainment Overlay Zone, limiting public disclosure of potential environmental impacts
- Require Port District coordination and Port matching funds for certain public uses on downtown waterfront property and for mitigation of stadium and/or convention-related development impacts. Allow bonded indebtedness where necessary
- Protect the parking rights of the San Diego Padres at Tailgate Park
- Tap TOTs to reimburse hotel operators for a portion of their assessments paid to tourism marketing
How’s that for a transparent, open, and understandable ballot initiative? Any questions?
If you’ve come this far you deserve a reward. Click on this classic Abbott and Costello skit. It’s a dead ringer for “The Citizens’ Plan” – except that Abbott and Costello make more sense. You might even end up thanking me for leaving you laughing instead of crying.