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Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Inventory Still Climbing

The total number of homes listed for sale on the Multiple Listings Service for San Diego County is approaching its previous record of 19,000 homes, a record that was set in July 1995.

There are currently 17,932 homes listed on the MLS, that’s up from a record low of 2,301 homes in March 2004. The amount of inventory has grown from 13,916 at the beginning of 2006 and has been increasing by about 2,000 homes a month since January.

Inventory levels are important because, generally, the more houses that are on the market, the longer a home will take to sell. The shift upwards in San Diego’s inventory has been characterized by many experts as a transition from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market.

— WILL CARLESS

Some Other Pension Bills

The retirement board decided Friday to pay the legal bills for two former staff members who were indicted in January for their alleged roles in the passage of a controversial pension benefit.

After not garnering enough votes several weeks ago, the retirement board squeezed out the votes needed for the retirement system to pay for the legal defense for former pension administrator Larry Grissom and in-house attorney Lori Chapin.

Because of the vacancies on the 13-seat panel, the retirement board garnered a majority but not the seven votes needed to pick up the legal costs for Grissom and Chapin at the Jan. 31 meeting.

Friday’s vote sufficed, as it passed by a 7-to-2 margin. Retiree representative Joe Flynn and citizen trustee Tom Hebrank voted no.

Grissom and Chapin were charged by the U.S. attorney along with three former retirement trustees for allegedly benefiting from a deal the retirement board approved in 2002 that allowed the city to skip its retirement bill.

By granting the two former staff members legal defense Friday, the board affirmatively found that they had acted within the scope of their employment, in good faith, and in the best interest of the system, and that it was in the system’s best interest to pay their attorney fees.

Picking up their defense tabs came with some strings attached. The board capped the hourly rate that their lawyers could charge and required collateral for the defense costs should the former staffers be found guilty.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

$162M Pension Payment Due

The city’s pension deficit grew by a marginal amount to $1.39 billion in the past year and City Hall will be asked to pay $162 million to the fund in July, roughly the same it paid last year.

The announcement ends speculation that the city will have to make a budget-busting payment to the retirement system in the coming year. However, the consultant who presented the city’s bill said the bill would likely be higher if it wanted to use more sound assumptions to safeguard the retirement fun’s health.

The figures presented to the retirement board Friday are an actuarial snapshot of the fund’s health as of June 30, 2005. A year earlier, the fun was calculated to have a deficit of $1.37 billion and the city paid $163 million.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Dueling Economists

Two economists with very different views of the need for a new San Diego airport will square off Monday morning at a specially called San Diego County Regional Airport Authority meeting.

Richard Carson, chairman of the economics department at University of California, San Diego, will discuss reasons why he thinks a 2001 economic analysis of San Diego’s future air needs is flawed. The analysis projects San Diego could lose $94 billion in gross regional product if air traffic gets too constrained. Carson says that estimate is about $94 billion off.

Seth Young, associate professor in the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., will follow with a presentation that will essentially tell Carson why he’s mostly wrong.

“Sometimes it looks like a battle on the outside, me versus him,” Young said. “But it’s two honest objectives — different views.”

The presentations immediately follow a 9:30 a.m. authority committee meeting. The agenda is posted here.

— ROB DAVIS

Desert Levitation

The San Diego Association of Government is releasing a study today that will say a magnetic levitation train to the Imperial Desert is “technically feasible.”

The maglev has been endorsed by Congressman Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, who solicited the federal earmark that paid for part of the analysis. The upside: It’d be a quick ride to an Imperial County airport. The downside: It could cost $20 billion.

The study is going to be released by 5 p.m. today and will be posted here.

— ROB DAVIS

Big Day Friday

People often wonder how a far-off, multi-billion dollar pension deficit really affects them. After all, all those billions of dollars aren’t immediately due today, right?

Well, Friday will be a crucial day in helping citizens understand exactly why and how that pension deficit is important. The pension system’s consultants are preparing their annual snapshot of the pension system’s health and will deliver it to the pension board in the morning.

And, as part of that report, the pension system will tell the city exactly how much it owes to the pension system out of its 2007 budget. Last year the city put in about $165 million of its $865 million operating budget into the pension system. That number is expected to climb come tomorrow (it has climbed significantly in recent years).

And every dollar that it does increase means one dollar that will be taken from basic city services such as parks, libraries, police officers and fire equipment. In recent years, the pension system’s escalating bill has forced gradual decreases in services levels. Absent significant reform, these and other related benefit costs will continue to chew up ever-growing chunks of the money that would otherwise be going to city services.

Check the Voice‘s This Just In throughout the day for updates and Saturday morning for a complete story. (We’re also going to have a Q&A with Padres CEO Sandy Alderson on Saturday, too.)

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Congressional Chat

For you all airport proposal enthusiasts out there: Congress is coming.

U.S. Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House subcommittee on aviation, will be part of a roundtable discussion Tuesday with U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista, to talk about San Diego’s air capacity constraints and the search for a new airport site.

In case you’re not familiar with Mica’s subcommittee — part of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure — it’s the one with jurisdiction over national aviation infrastructure planning.

Mayor Jerry Sanders has also been invited, and Joe Craver, chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, will also be there.

The roundtable (you’re invited) runs from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 29 of the San Diego Convention Center. Map it: 111 West Harbor Drive, 92101.

— ROB DAVIS

D-Day: June 23

San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre asked a Superior Court judge Thursday in a brief filed with the court to rule on the legality of pension benefit enhancements granted to employees dating back to 1996. Aguirre says the pension benefits were never funded properly and created in corrupt agreements.

With eight months of procedural issues behind him in the high-profile case, the motion asks the judge to make a decision in the case. Aguirre has estimated that voiding the benefits could knock $700 million off the projected $2 billion the city owes to its retirement system.

Judge Jeffrey Barton is expected to rule on the matter June 23, which Aguirre called San Diego’s “D-Day.” Check Friday’s issue for a full story.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Hot Dog

After a brief bomb scare, Cox Arena staff just received the green light to open up their gates to March Madness fans.

Marquette was set to tip off against Alabama at 11:40 a.m. today, but a bomb-sniffing dog “went hot” near a hot-dog cart and University Police temporarily shut down the stadium.

The FBI and the Metro Arson Strike Team are investigating why the dog reacted to the hot-dog cart, according to a San Diego State University spokesman. Three gates are still shut down while the San Diego Fire Department clears its gear from the area.

— SAM HODGSON

Yesterday, Voice of San Diego published a This Just In entry that detailed its troubles receiving cost estimates and contracts from the San Diego Police Department for the policing of special events planned this weekend.

A police official initially refused to provide Voice with the information and even challenged a reporter to take legal action. But after a few phone calls, the publishing of the TJI entry yesterday and the filing of a formal public information request, Voice received a phone call from Executive Assistant Police Chief Bill Maheu.

Maheu discussed at length how much it would cost to police the World Baseball Classic and the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament. The information he provided is reflected in today’s story.

As it turns out, Sunshine Week isn’t so gloomy after all.

— SAM HODGSON

Legal Bills Back on Table

The board overseeing the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System will reconsider picking up the tab for two former pension officials who were indicted in January.

Attorneys for former SDCERS Administrator Larry Grissom and the system’s in-house attorney Lori Chapin will again ask the board to pay for the legal fees related to their clients’ criminal defense after failing to garner the support needed on the board two months ago.

Seven trustees must approve the proposal for SDCERS to pay the legal bills. Only eight trustees were present the first time the matter was taken up, and the request only garnered five “yes” votes, two “no” votes and one abstention. Ten trustees are expected to attend Friday’s board meeting.

In a letter released Wednesday, City Attorney Mike Aguirre urged the retirement board to not provide legal defense to Grissom and Chapin, who were indicted on corruption charges along with three former retirement trustees: firefighters union president Ron Saathoff, former Assistant City Auditor Terri Webster and former city Human Resources Director Cathy Lexin.

Federal prosecutors allege the five defendants schemed to enact a pension-funding arrangement in 2002 that effectively boosted their future retirement pay.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

FPPC Found No Wrong

Here’s an after-deadline addendum to our story on the U.S. attorney’s embezzlement case against local Democratic consultant Larry Remer and the departed past president of Southwestern Community College.

The story makes reference to the state’s government ethics arm, the Fair Political Practices Commission, or FPPC. Many of the political consultants we contacted said the case would be more appropriately settled by the FPPC.

The FPPC did receive a complaint about the issue and took it under review for 15 months. The case was closed on June 17, 2004, without prosecution, FPPC spokesman Chris Espinoza said.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Chargers Timeout

Wednesday, March 15, 2006 — 12:19 p.m.

So the Chargers lost quarterback Drew Brees yesterday. And the city of San Diego found out about a new dimension of its multi-pronged, multibillion-dollar retirement deficit.

But the mutual bad day gives us an opportunity to check in and see what’s going on with the two sides in their stadium talks. The answer: not too much. The team has met with the city’s negotiating team once since the Chargers announced in January that they wouldn’t be putting a stadium proposal on the November ballot, according to a team official.

Councilman Jim Madaffer wants the city to allow the Chargers to speak with other cities around the county, an effort supporters say will give the region a shot to keep the team before it has the opportunity to talk with cities around the nation come Jan. 1.

At that time, the team’s contract with the city allows other cities to begin courting the Chargers.

The team’s special advisor, Mark Fabiani, said in an interview that putting a proposal for a new stadium at the exiting Qualcomm Stadium site on the 2008 ballot is an unrealistic alternative.

The team also appears to advocate a restructuring of its contract to allow it to speak with other cities in the county, though Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office has been mum on the issue. Oceanside, National City and Chula Vista have expressed interest in talking with the team, Fabiani said.

He said the team is also revaluating other sites within the city of San Diego boundaries.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Ain’t No Sunshine

Sunshine week, huh?

Tell that to San Diego Police Lt. Marvin Shaw.

This morning when Voice of San Diego requested copies of contracts related to the policing of upcoming sporting events, he refused to provide them.

“You can take whatever type of legal recourse you want but I’m not sending them to you,” he said.

That’s quite a way to celebrate Sunshine Week, which many newspapers and public agencies across the country are marking this week.

According to the city of San Diego’s official Sunshine Week Web site, “Sunshine Week provides an opportunity for everyone to celebrate the Sunshine Laws. These laws are what make open government and public participation in government possible.”

Apparently the police department didn’t get the memo.

SAM HODGSON

One Closes, One Opens

A Solana Beach sewage spill closed water to recreational users at the San Dieguito River Beach in Del Mar. A blockage in a sewer main caused the spill, which started March 12 and was stopped today at 10 a.m.

About 5,760 gallons of sewage spilled near Bay Meadows Way. Signs warning of sewage-contaminated water have been posted by the county’s Department of Environmental Health, because the spill flowed into a storm drain that empties into a “tidally influenced extension” of the river, the DEH said in a release. Signs will remain in place until the nearby water is safe for recreational use.

Earlier today, the DEH reopened Imperial Beach waters, which were closed Monday after the weekend rainfall.

— ROB DAVIS

SD Home Prices

Tuesday, March 14, 2006 — 3:25 p.m.

Southern California home prices reached record-high levels in February, but the number of homes sold last month was the lowest in five years, a La Jolla-based real estate information service reported today.

The median price paid for a home in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, Ventura and San Bernardino counties was $480,000, a 2.3 percent increase from January, and a 12.9 percent rise from February 2005, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

The previous record high of $479,000 was set in November and matched in December.

A total of 19,905 homes were sold in February, down from January’s level of 20,085, and down 7 percent from February 2005. Last month’s sales were the

“The frenzy is behind us,” said Marshall Prentice, DataQuick president. “We’re in a new phase of the real estate cycle and what remains to be seen is

The median price of homes sold in San Diego County was $502,000 last month, up 6.4 percent last February’s median of $472,000, DataQuick reported. A total

—WIRE REPORTS

What’s Another Billion?

City officials announced today that the city owes $1 billion in retiree health care costs, finally putting a solid figure on a lesser-known but equally burdensome dimension of the city’s pension problems.

The deficit, spurred by increased health care costs and the city’s financial policies, is outlined in a report released today that was commissioned by the City Council last year. For a number of years, the city promised to cover health care costs for retired employees but has failed to annually set aside the funds to cover its future costs. The city has been paying its annual bill for retiree health care costs but has failed to plan for increased costs in the future.

The burgeoning problem of retiree health care costs has affected governments and private corporations across the country.

Mayor Jerry Sanders said the city will continue these payment policies this year because it has no choice. The city doesn’t have the funds to pay the $115 million that would be necessary to fully fund the benefit, he said.

The mayor said the report allows the city to begin planning for how to deal with the deficit in future years.

“It gives us a starting point where we can start to address this liability for the future,” Sanders said.

Beginning in fiscal year 2008, governments will be forced to report on financial disclosures the difference between what it annually pays toward health care costs and what it should be paying to cover its annual costs. If the city were forced to report health care costs this year, its financial disclosures would show a liability of about $100 million, a city-hired actuary said at the press conference.

ANDREW DONOHUE 

Saint Brees Day

San Diego Chargers Quarterback Drew Brees will not suit up in blue and gold this season. After throwing for 3,576 yards with 24 touchdowns last year, Brees agreed today to a 6-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, according to the Saints.

Brees suffered a separated shoulder in the last game of the 2005-06 season when he attempted to recover a fumble. Chargers officials said they wanted Brees to return to the team, but they apparently couldn’t pony up enough cash to satiate the QB.

Brees has subsequently been courting bids from the Saints as well as the Miami Dolphins. He is scheduled to make a statement when he meets with the media tomorrow afternoon.

— SAM HODGSON

Froot Loop Airport

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority is going back to do a basic study of building an airport at Naval Air Station North Island — even though a detailed study is already well underway.

Board member Paul Nieto, who called for the basic study at North Island, had this to say about the out-of-sequence study: “You’ve got to juggle. Unfortunately, it’s not a cereal-box process. We just want to make sure, in those iterations, they’ve studied the Tier I criteria.”

Cereal-box process?

We don’t know what that means, either.

But for more on the North Island study, look for the story Tuesday.

— ROB DAVIS

Plane Gazing

The director of Mount Laguna Observatory is a bit worried.

Putting an airport in Boulevard — 15 miles away from the observatory — could render the space-gazing station nearly useless.

The problem? Light pollution.

As it stands, Mount Laguna is buffered by Anza-Borrego State Park and Cleveland National Forest. When the sun sets, it gets dark at Mount Laguna. Very dark. 

But building an airport nearby would change that, Paul B. Etzel, the observatory’s director, told a San Diego County Regional Airport Authority committee today.

Boulevard — also known as the Campo site — is one prospective home for a new San Diego airport.

The light pollution from an airport would be troublesome, Etzel said. But airplanes flying directly over the observatory would be much worse, he said. Bright landing lights could ruin dark skies.

“It’d be like moving Mexicali to Campo,” Etzel said.

An Imperial Valley airport could also pose problems, Etzel told the authority’s strategic planning committee. If flight paths crossed the observatory, he said even a plane’s running lights could impact stargazing.

The uncertainty about the airport’s future home is hindering fundraising at the observatory. Etzel said efforts to raise $7.1 million to construct a 96-inch telescope have stalled.

If the authority chooses Boulevard as the airport’s future home, it would have to mitigate its impacts on the observatory. Etzel said the site is valued between $15 million and $45 million.

— ROB DAVIS

New Parks Chief

Monday, March 13, 2006 — 1:06 p.m.

Mayor Jerry Sanders appointed Grossmont College President Ted Martinez, Jr., on Monday to oversee the city’s libraries, parks and recreation programs.

Martinez will replace Ellie Oppenheim, a longtime city administrator who recently split town to take a job in Reno, Nev., as the deputy chief operating officer for Customer and Neighborhood Services.

Martinez has run Grossmont College for the past six years.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Council Members Play Defense

Monday, March 13, 2006 — 11:11 a.m.

Four members of the San Diego City Council are up for re-election this year, and all will face challengers in the June primary.

Councilman Kevin Faulconer of District 2, which stretches along the coast from downtown to La Jolla, was just elected to a council post in January. He will face Kennan Kaeder, business attorney and former head of the local Democratic Party, in June.

Also in January, Councilman Ben Hueso was also elected to represent District 8, which includes the city’s neighborhoods below downtown and along the border. In June he will compete against teacher Remy Bermudez and businessman Tim Gomez after defeating both in the primary last November.

Councilwoman Donna Frye will defend her District 6 council seat, which represents Clairemont, Mission Valley and Kearney Mesa. Community volunteer Judy Riddle and Sandy Summers will challenge Frye for her seat. No occupation was listed for Summers, though he is one of the more colorful speakers to address the council on a regular basis.

Councilman Tony Young will defend the District 4 post, which oversees Southeast San Diego, after taking office just one year ago. Young will face community volunteer Bruce Williams.

The primary will be held June 6. If no candidate achieves more than 50 percent of the vote in June, the top two vote-getters will advance to a runoff election in November.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Redeveloped Airports

For everyone following the development of a new airport proposal, it’s worth reading The New York Times’ look at what happens when old airports close.

Interesting stuff. Might the Times revisit the topic in 2030 and write a story about the redevelopment of Lindbergh Field?

ROB DAVIS

Imperial Closure

Imperial Beach’s waters are closed again.

The county’s Department of Environmental Health posted IB’s beaches Saturday, after rainfall sent sewage-laced rain runoff from the Tijuana River into the Pacific Ocean.

The Tijuana River was more than gurgling Saturday. I took a first-hand look at what happens in the river basin post-rainfall Saturday afternoon. One word that describes it: Brown.

About 200 million gallons of the sewage-y stuff flowed through the river Saturday, and it’s still chugging along, according to a river gauge maintained by the International Boundary and Water Commission. Currents are pushing it north.

Water access at Border Field State Park and Tijuana Slough National Wildlife Refuge remains closed. That’s been in effect since Feb. 21.

ROB DAVIS

Sanders: Workers Should Stay

City Attorney Mike Aguirre on Thursday told city workers they would be better off finding work elsewhere because the service they perform for the city won’t earn them the pension they were promised. The city doesn’t have the money to pay it, he said.

Hours later, Council President Scott Peters said Aguirre’s comments were irrelevant, and the mayor stepped in Friday with a memo to “all city employees” quell reaction to the fiery city attorney’s comments.

Mayor Jerry Sanders wrote an e-mail thanking city workers for their service and, in a polite way, said Aguirre’s comments were off-base.

“Unfortunately, often times things get said in the public arena that are either wrong or just plain unfortunate,” he wrote. “I think the City of San Diego is a great place to work and that your hard work and daily efforts are very important.”

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Spam Scam?

The city seems to have run into another e-mail glitch.

The San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper, reported Friday that up to 9,000 of e- former City Manager Lamont Ewell’s were intentionally erased and opened an investigation into the matter. The discovery came as the city and its information technology arm were honoring a public records request the newspaper had filed.

Following up on the request, the city’s Information Technology & Communications determined that there were only 43 e-mails for all of 2005 in Ewell’s e-mail box. The San Diego Data Processing Corp., a nonprofit arm that handles IT for the city, later found a snapshot of his e-mail box that showed that he had more than 8,800 total messages.

“It is important to note that we have no factual knowledge what occurred between these two snapshots,” Sanders wrote in a memo Friday.

It is uncertain whether Ewell’s scenario was isolated, or if other City Hall inboxes are missing their e-mail data.

The revelation comes months after Ewell, now Santa Monica’s city manager, declared a don’t-delete directive for city employees. The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have been probing City Hall’s financial dealings and searched e-mails as one tool for its investigation. It’s unclear whether Ewell’s e-mails have been subpoenaed.

The city has fallen victim to a problem with accessing its documents before. The city’s audit committee, who is preparing a report for outside auditors before they certify the City Hall’s books, announced that the Vinson & Elkins law firm was unable to access nearly one-third of the 160,000 documents it compiled for its own probe.

City officials called for an investigation into the Ewell matter and for an overhaul of the city’s record-keeping practices on Friday. Mayor Jerry Sanders said policies for retaining documents differ from department to department and need to be standardized.

A task force consisting of City Clerk Liz Maland, City Attorney Mike Aguirre, acting Chief Information Officer Matt McGarvey and San Diego Data Processing Corp. chief Tom Fleming will evaluate the city’s e-mail retention policies. The panel will prepare a report on the policies and practices and also offer suggestions.

Aguirre also said that his office has opened a separate investigation into the matter and will keep the Justice Department and SEC updated on its findings.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

But Did They Get the Message?

A few posts ago, the attorney for the city’s white-collar workers basically said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to the mayor’s request to mediate the continuing pension dispute, which challenges over $700 million in employee benefits.

“This is to advise you that I received your letter dated March 5, 2002,” Sanders wrote Wednesday.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

New Subpoenas

A federal grand jury has issued a new subpoena for information regarding a meeting of the San Diego City Council in January 2002.

The U.S. Attorney’s office has been sifting through information about San Diego’s pension crisis looking for criminal behavior since 2002. In January, prosecutors announced that they had secured an indictment of five former players in the city’s retirement system.

Now, according to the a new subpoena released by the City Attorney’s Office, a grand jury has asked for “any and all documents and communications related to the San Diego City Council’s closed session meeting on January 29, 2002. Documentation should include, but is not limited to, draft and final versions of presentations, notes, draft and final versions of Closed Session Reports, and draft and final versions of memos and e-mails.”

The indictments handed out in January indicated that the five people charged with felonies for their actions while administering the city’s pension system worked closely with “others.”

The subpoena was sent on March 6 and the documents are expected to be in the Grand Jury’s hands March 31.

—SCOTT LEWIS

Doh! McGuigan

A former city employee’s case against the city of San Diego for underfunding its retirement system from may be wrapped up as early as May, a judge said Friday.

Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss said he will decide on May 26 how to rule on William McGuigan’s case to force the city to make a $178 million payment to the retirement fund. If denied, McGuigan can ask for a full jury trial, which would begin Sept. 15.

The city also has until April 21 to decide whether it will admit or deny certain statements made by City Attorney Mike Aguirre in various interim reports. Michael Conger, the attorney for McGuigan, contends that he has the supporting evidence to prove that the city paid a less-than-actuarially-sound amount into its pension fund from 1996 to 2005, but said the city is arguing other lawsuits based on those facts too.

“The city can’t eat its cake and have it,” he said Friday.

Council President Scott Peters has indicated that the council will weigh in on whether to make those admissions, probably at a meeting in the next two weeks.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Blowin’ in the Wind

Plans to build a supplemental airport at Naval Air Station North Island may not takeoff if the wind gods have anything to do with it.

A San Diego County Regional Airport Authority analysis found that meeting Federal Aviation Administration wind-standards might reduce the proposed site’s capacity.

FAA regulations require airports to be able to operate 95 percent of the time.

Ten years of analysis show that gusts at the Coronado site would force the authority to create four different flight patterns to comply with that standard.

But some intersect with Lindbergh Field’s flight patterns. This creates what agency staff call a “dependent operation,” as the two runways would have to coordinate their arrivals and departures with one another.

The authority is still evaluating exactly what effect it will have on air traffic control coordination and the number of flights that can take off and land from the site. They expect that it will reduce the airfield capacity.

The authority’s strategic planning committee will take up the issue when it meets Monday morning.

— SAM HODGSON

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