Monday, May 02, 2005 | Businesses and residents in San Diego pay for – and receive – significantly fewer services than their counterparts in other major California cities, according to a report that will be released Monday.

The Center on Policy Initiatives, the progressive think tank that authored the study, estimates that $279 million could be raised annually for the city’s day-to-day budget by increasing tax and fee levels to the average amount levied by California’s 10 largest cities.

Representatives from CPI will tell a City Council committee that the city’s revenue streams and public services are lacking when compared to other urban centers across the Golden State.

“The main point of this is that this city doesn’t have revenue to pay for what the city wants,” CPI executive director Donald Cohen said.

According to the report, residents of San Diego, the state’s second-largest city, pay $38.67 per month for city services whereas the average monthly per-person cost for public services in the state’s 10 largest cities is $57.75.

“That’s cheaper than your cable bill,” Cohen said. “We get a lot of services for that.”

The study shows that business license fees, hotel taxes and real estate transfer taxes are significantly lower in San Diego than the average big city in California, and that the city may want to consider taxing for utility usage and trash collection to raise additional funds.

Among the state’s 10 largest cities studied by CPI, San Diego was found to have:

– The lowest hotel tax, 15 percent lower than the major city average.

– The lowest real estate transfer tax, one-sixth the average.

– The second-lowest business license fees, less than one-fifth the average.

– No trash collection fee, when $9.80 per household was the average monthly fee.

– No utility users’ taxes, when $92 per person was the average annual fee.

The 10 largest California cities surveyed in the study were Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento, Oakland, Santa Ana and Anaheim, respectively.

Supplementing the city’s revenue, the report says, could help fund improvements that will bring San Diego’s police, fire and parks departments and its public infrastructure up to speed with its regional economic growth and up to par with the state’s other urban centers.

For example:

– There are 6.9 firefighters for every 10,000 San Diegans, a ratio less than the 10 largest cities in the state. As a result, San Diego firefighters arrive on the scene within six minutes 50 percent of the time. The National Fire Protection Association standard is for firefighters to arrive on scene within six minutes 90 percent of the time.

– San Diego spends less per acre of parkland than any of the other cities surveyed. About $2,610 is spent per acre in San Diego, which is less than half the average per-acre expenditure of $6,442 among the state’s other large cities.

– Only Fresno spends less ($85 per person annually) than San Diego ($90 per person) on streets, highways and storm drains.

Additional money raised could go toward improving public services the study found to be funded at a below-average rate in San Diego. The city is below the average in terms of funding to hire additional police officers, firefighters and librarians; purchase more firefighting equipment; and better maintain the city’s vast parklands, roads and storm drains.

Lisa Briggs, executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, said her organization recognizes the need for new revenue, but that finding those sources is only “half the equation.”

“It’s not just a low revenue problem,” she said. “This city also has problems setting priorities, and we need to make sure that any new revenue coming in isn’t just shuttled into a new program. We don’t have that luxury anymore.”

Briggs said she favors funding core services like public safety, libraries, parks and infrastructure maintenance, while dealing with the underfinanced city employee pension and retiree health care plans.

A number of Democratic council members said the CPI study will allow voters to better understand San Diego’s budget.

“This report, in my mind, is the first step to that educational process and discussion for the public,” said Councilwoman Donna Frye, who chairs the committee that will hear the report Monday morning. “We need to make the budget understandable and this gives us that hard dose of reality.”

Frye and colleagues Scott Peters and Toni Atkins said they supported past attempts to raise hotel tax rates through citywide ballot measures, but that voters were not convinced. Calls placed to other council members were not returned.

Cohen said that raising taxes and fees to the average level of the state’s 10 largest cities is a goal for his organization, but said he would not support adding a ballot measure to address a revenue increase if a special election to replace Mayor Dick Murphy were held this year.

Cohen is, however, optimistic that a revenue increase will get done.

“We just went and did it with TransNet,” Cohen said, referring to the half-cent sales tax earmarked for transportation funding that is collected by the San Diego Association of Governments. Voters passed an extension of TransNet in November.

“It can be done,” he said.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly at

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