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Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Officials: If They Build It, You Will Come

City and Navy officials reaffirmed Saturday their support for their ongoing plans to redevelop the Navy Broadway Complex from the bayside lot of dreary gray office buildings and warehouses it is today into a modernized facility that complements the efforts to beautify the North Embarcadero.

Responding to concerns that the public was being shunned from the makeover of the waterfront military property, Mayor Jerry Sanders and other officials explained how suggestions to shutter the Navy Broad Complex through the standard base closure process or to propose a land-swap between the Navy and city were unfeasible.

City Hall and its downtown planners, the Centre City Development Corp., are working with the Navy, the port district and the county to implement the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan

The nearly 15-acre Navy property is smack dab in the middle of the North Embarcadero project area.

Because the rules have changed since the city was handed the Point Loma-area land that housed the Naval Training Center, which was closed by the feds last decade, shuttering the Navy Broadway Complex would place the city behind other military and federal agencies that have a crack at claiming the prized property. Local American Indian tribes would also have priority over the city if the Navy facility were closed under the Base Realignment and Closure process, officials said.

Swapping out the Navy property with city land elsewhere or transferring the functions performed Broadway site to the 32nd Street Naval Base would need to be done through BRAC as well, said Capt. Michael Allen, chief of staff for Commander Navy Region Southwest.

The plan in place: The Navy will hold onto the property and choose a private developer to lease it for 75 years or more. Companies have already submitted their bids and the Navy will select a developer to negotiate with by March 31.

The developer will have to cooperate with the city’s planning laws and undergo review by CCDC and the City Council before its project is approved, CCDC chairwoman Jennifer LeSar said.

Federal procurement laws will not allow the Navy to disclose who the bidders are, but several developers who have carried out local projects are in the hunt, the Navy said.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

The Navy Says What?

The San Diego Union-Tribune ran a headline above a story about the airport authority today that read:

Spilt Sewage

A wastewater spill in Oceanside yesterday was stemmed before it had a chance to reach the ocean. A valve failed on a force main between 5:10 p.m. and 6:40 p.m., according to a release from the San Diego County Department of Environmental Health.

The 43,000 gallon spill flowed into a storm drain, then into Loma Alta creek. Oceanside city crews pumped 171,500 gallons of water out of the creek and built a sand berm at a nearby beach to keep the water out of the ocean.

Warning signs have been posted at Buccaneer Beach Park and will remain up until Feb. 21.

— ROB DAVIS

Old Globe’s Magic

Voice Senior Editor Neil Morgan is known to be moved by good works of art. The new play at the Old Globe gave him a good shove. Check out his quick review in “Neil’s Nook.”

SCOTT LEWIS

Condo Glut Nationwide

A story on the front page of this morning’s New York Times business section looks at the nationwide trend toward bloated condo inventories.

Surprise surprise, San Diego is one of the markets the story focuses on.

“Over the last few years, real estate speculators looking to make a quick gain also snapped up preconstruction condos in Chicago, Miami and San Diego. With prices rising by more than 20 percent a year, short-term buyers figured that by the time the condos were ready to occupy, they could sell them without ever moving in, clearing thousands of dollars in profits,” reads the article.

Of course, none of this is really news to readers of the Voice of San Diego. A couple of months ago, we reported that the cancellation rate for preconstruction sales was up sharply, a trend one analyst called “the first harbinger of a problem.”

Since then, we have been watching cancellation rates like a hawk, and have been running weekly updates of the condo inventory numbers in downtown San Diego, courtesy of Lew Breeze, a downtown Realtor. Those inventory figures have been climbing steadily since the first of the year, while median prices have been slipping.

Finally, a couple of weeks back, we reported on the “domino effect” that’s starting to be seen in downtown San Diego’s condo projects.

The Elle, a project slated for the Little Italy neighborhood, was put up for sale earlier this month, and experts suggest that up to 40 percent of the roughly 11,000 condo units on the cards for downtown will never be built.

The Times piece tells us that San Diego is not alone, but is actually part of a failing fraternity of overheated cities around the United States.

Sometimes it’s good to know you’re not the only one with a problem.

— WILL CARLESS

Agency’s Mood Stays the Same

San Diego’s financial reliability isn’t better, but it ain’t worse either, a credit rating agency announced Thursday.

That in itself was heralded as good news by Mayor Jerry Sanders and other city officials, who pointed to the constant downgrades the city’s credit ratings have suffered over the past few years.

Sanders called it an “incredibly positive sign” at an afternoon press conference.

Moody’s Investor Service, one of the three major rating agencies investors look to when shopping for bunds, “affirmed the rating’s on the city of San Diego’s various general fund and enterprise obligations … and retained the negative outlook on those ratings,” according to a statement the agency released.

Over the past few years, agencies have downgraded or suspended altogether the city’s credit rating, barring it from publicly borrowing money for much needed sewer improvements and fire station construction.

Most notable to the firm was the city’s lack of audited financial statements since 2002 and the cost of investigating City Hall before those audits and several legal matters involving the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission can be resolved.

Moody’s also recognized a circular problem between the money used for investigations and the cash it’s unable to obtain until those probes are concluded.

“The investigations also pose a challenge in that as long as they continue the city’s audited financials, from fiscal 2003 to the present, cannot be released,” the report stated.

The positives: “expenditure controls” have been put in place and the mayor and council seem committed to keeping the budget lean in the near future, the report said. Although, The agency noted that the city’s budget is still fundamentally flawed.

“However, Moody’s notes that despite the over $1.37 billion deficit in the city’s employee pension system — one of the key sources of its current difficulties — discussion if major expenditure cuts has not been in evidence,” the report said. “Securitizing the city’s tobacco revenue has been suggested as a potential source of funding for the pension system, but this is more a solution in form than substance as it does not address the city’s structural budgetary imbalance.”

For you non-politicos, there is a bacon cheeseburger in the report for you too. Moody’s commented on the city’s “healthy” economy and the”recent wealth of city residents,” where the average city resident has a per-capita income that is nearly 25 percent higher than the statewide median.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Supervisor Atkins? Not in ’06

City Councilwoman Toni Atkins said Thursday she will not challenge county Supervisor Ron Roberts for his fourth district seat on the Board of Supervisors this year, saying she preferred to finish out the remaining three years of her second council term.

“There are many immediate and future challenges facing the city of San Diego,” she stated, referring to the city’s various investigations, inability to borrow money on the public markets and backlog of construction and infrastructure projects.

“In this time of crisis I have a duty to the people to help the city work through its financial issues and get back on track. I simply cannot walk away from that obligation,” she said.

Atkins commissioned a poll and a panel to study her chances in Roberts’ district, a metropolitan swath that runs vertically from southeast San Diego to University City. She said in a press statement that the contest would have been “a tough — but winnable — race.”

Roberts, who was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1994, will face competition from local labor leader Richard Barerra. Also, San Diego City Schools trustee Sheila Jackson is considering a run at the seat.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Stealing the School

MARSHA SUTTON

Arraign Out

The district attorney’s prosecution of six former retirement trustees will be put on the shelf awhile longer after the judge presiding over the corruption case allowed the arraignment to be postponed Thursday.

The most recent delay resulted from a successful appeal by defendant John Torres’ attorney Bob Rose, who asked the 4th District Court of Appeals if he could withdraw from the case because Torres’ debt was unmanageable. His client had been in breach of his contract for months, Rose said.

Legal bills for Torres, who is also a defendant in a number of pension-related civil lawsuits initiated by City Attorney Mike Aguirre, have been upwards of $250,000, Rose said.

Superior Court Judge Frederic Link, who decided to send the case to a full jury trial after presiding over a lengthy preliminary hearing, originally told Rose he could not pull out because the move would come too deep into the complex case. Switching attorneys would be unfair to Torres, Link said Feb. 1, but granted the order to allow Rose’s withdrawal Thursday.

“That’s what the boss says, so that’s what I’m going to do,” Link said, referring to the appellate court.

The judge allowed the arraignment to be pushed back again so that whoever is assigned to be Torres’ public defender will have a little more time to catch up.

Torres, who is vice president of the city’s white-collar union, and firefighters union President Ron Saathoff, former Assistant City Auditor Terri Webster, city management analyst Sharon Wilkinson, former City Treasurer Mary Vattimo and former Human Resources Director Cathy Lexin will all stand trial on criminal conflict of interest charges.

The District Attorney’s Office alleges that the six defendants received increased pension benefits with other city employees when they voted as retirement board members to allow the city relief from its pension bill in 2002.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Timberrrrr!

Need some firewood next winter? Talk to the federal government. The U.S. Forest Service is thinking about selling off nearly 200,000 acres of state and local forest land. About 85,000 acres of land potentially for sale are in California.

The federal government expects the sale could net $800 million and help pay for schools and roads in rural counties affected by logging cutbacks, according to a weekend story in the San Francisco Chronicle.

A small portion of the land proposed for sale is in Southern California — 350 acres in San Bernardino National Forest, 400 in Los Padres National Forest, 100 in Angeles National Forest, and an apparently miniscule amount (less than an acre) in Cleveland National Forest.

The chart listing parcels is a tough read — it doesn’t specify where the land is in English, but rather in code — but it does detail the places where sales are proposed.

— ROB DAVIS

Economist: Recession Unlikely

Edward E. Leamer, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Anderson Forecast, is projecting a serious slowdown in economic growth for the country, but not necessarily a recession.

In a piece published in the Los Angeles Business Journal and also running on the forecast’s Web site, Leamer cites a recent Wall Street Journal article that asked 56 economists around the country for their forecasts for 2006.

Most of the forecasts hovered around a 3-percent growth rate, Leamer writes, but the Andersen Forecast’s numbers are much lower — about 0.5 percent lower. Indeed:

“When the Wall Street Journal ranked the forecasts top to bottom, highest to lowest, UCLA Anderson’s forecast ranks 52nd of 56.”

Why are the Los Angeles guys so pessimistic? Well, essentially, Leamer argues that the nation’s economy has been propped up by “party favors” in the form of the .com boom and ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s “very attractive bond market.”

Low loan rates have set up a frenzy of real estate buying, Leamer argues:

“Every person who could crawl off the street was offered a home loan and anyone who could whisper ‘yes’ was given one. Home values went into the stratosphere and homeowners and their friends celebrated with a wild spending spree.”

This party can’t last, runs Leamer’s argument. Without a dot-com boom or a housing boom to keep the economy primed, California and the nation are in big trouble. The sobering truth for many homeowners, Leamer writes, is that:

“It could become really ugly really fast in the housing sector if there is a recession with severe job loss, since loss of a job is often enough to force delinquency and default.”

So why no recession?

Well, that will be covered in tomorrow’s story about UCLA Anderson Senior Analyst Chris Thornberg’s presentation to a group of industry insiders. We don’t want to tell you all the juicy stuff in one go!

WILL CARLESS  

Anderson Landing at UCSD

The presentation of the prestigious University of California Los Angeles Anderson Forecast, a quarterly snapshot of the state of the nation’s economy, will be coming to the University of California, San Diego, this spring.

The forecast, which began in 1952, is watched closely by economists from all over the United States. The presentation of the forecast is typically made in Los Angeles or Orange County.

Chris Thornberg, a senior analyst with the forecast, was in La Jolla this morning to give a presentation about California’s housing “bubble.” We will be running a full story on his presentation, along with analysis from local experts, in tomorrow’s edition.

Thornberg confirmed comments made by Bob Sullivan, dean of the university’s new Rady School of Management, that the forecast would be presenting its findings at UCSD. A date has not been set as yet, but Sullivan said it’s confirmed. Doubtless this is quite a coup for the university’s new school.

WILL CARLESS

Time to Think

Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Barton will wait until March 6 to decide whether to confirm or back away from his tentative ruling that said San Diego’s embattled pension system could appoint an independent lawyer.

We’ve followed the issue — one of the biggest fights that City Attorney Mike Aguirre has picked — extensively.

SCOTT LEWIS

A Cleaner Border?

The federal agency responsible for sewage issues along the United States-Mexico border has signed a contract with Bajagua LLC to develop a controversial new wastewater treatment plant in Tijuana.

The approval — while a major landmark on a major project — doesn’t mean the plant will immediately be built. Construction and operation still requires Mexican government approval and permitting from several agencies in both countries. By court order, the project is due online in September 2008.

Once the plant is built, the United States will pay Bajagua — a private company — to operate it. The first year payment could range from $29 million to $39 million. Bajagua is shouldering the construction costs, estimated between $200 million and $600 million.

Bajagua touts its project as a comprehensive solution to Tijuana sewage issues. Currently, millions of gallons of untreated sewage flow into the Pacific Ocean after heavy rainfalls. Critics, however, say the project won’t benefit water quality and doesn’t solve fundamental issues in haphazardly created colonias, cliff-side dwellings on Tijuana’s outskirts that sometimes lack plumbing.

— ROB DAVIS

New York Love

The New York Times’ new housing blog The Walk Through has picked up a story that ran in Voice of San Diego last week.

The story looks at the concept of “cluster selling,” where several houses in one neighborhood suddenly go up for sale at the same time.

The Walk Through hasn’t been around long, but has made quite a splash in the real estate blogosphere.

— WILL CARLESS

Ballot Back-Ups

Four San Diegans told the City Clerk on Wednesday that they intend to gather the signatures required to place four overlapping measures on the November ballot, similar to the workforce-reform initiatives being championed by Mayor Jerry Sanders.

The group wants voters to decide whether:

— Voters should be required to approve any increase to city workers’ pension benefits.

— City employees should evenly split the cost of their pension benefits with the city.

— The city can allow private businesses to compete over municipal work with city employees.

The four measures overlap each other in language in some cases and one provides the option of excluding public safety workers from a voters-decide-future-benefits proposition.

Sanders is currently asking the City Council to place two measures on the November ballot, one requiring the voters to approve city employee pension enhancements before they’re enacted and the other allowing the competitive bidding of city services. A council committee forwarded the two initiatives to the full council, which will take them up Feb. 27.

Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, a conservative think tank; nursing-company executive Steve Francis, who ran against Sanders in last July’s mayoral primary; construction company owner Allan Royster; and small business owner Alex Barron signed the initiatives.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

North County Home Prices Drop

The median price of a single-family detached home in North County San Diego dropped 2.41 percent from December 2005 to January 2006, according to figures from the North San Diego County Association of Realtors.

The median price in North County was $405,000 in January 2006, down from $415,000 in December 2005.

The average number of days such a home stayed on the market was actually down in North County in January. Single-family attached homes took an average of 60 days to sell in January 2006, down from 66 days in December 2005.

Despite the price drop from late 2005, single-family attached home prices in the area remained 3.85 percent higher in January 2006 than January 2005.

WILL CARLESS

Downtown Inventory Up 

The inventory of condos in downtown San Diego rose last week for the sixth week running since the beginning of the year, according to statistics compiled by Lew Breeze, a downtown Realtor.

The total number of downtown condos available on the market (excluding developer units) was 487 this week, up slightly from 481 last week.

The median price of condos in the 92101 ZIP code listed on the Multiple Listings Service dropped for the eighth consecutive week, down a significant $4,000 from last week to $644,938.

Breeze has been compiling the statistics from the Multiple Listings Service since 2003.

— WILL CARLESS

Not Us

Earlier this week, we reported that a number of targets of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s ongoing investigation into the city of San Diego have received so-called “Wells calls” indicating that they have one last chance to clear their name before the agency takes action against them.

The identities, however, of those who received the calls were unclear to us.

Today, representatives of both Councilmen Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer said they have not received such communications from the SEC.

Council President Scott Peters had earlier said he didn’t receive anything like that either.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

New GM

The agency that’s responsible for getting water from the Colorado River into many San Diego homes has a new leader.

Jeff Kightlinger, 46, was introduced earlier today as the new general manager of the Metropolitan Water District, which provides half the water used by the more than 18 million people in Southern California. The Los Angeles-based agency employs 1,900 and has a $1.7 billion annual budget.

In the job, Kightlinger is responsible for implementing policies set by the MWD’s board, working with legislators at every level. He has an environmental law background, and joined the MWD in 1995. He has spent the last four years as the district’s general counsel.

He fills the vacancy created by the death of former MWD chief Dennis Underwood, who died in early November.

— ROB DAVIS

Getting Lost in the Ethics Orgy

We’ve been following the ethics orgy at City Hall for a while now. Seems things are getting so intense with it, that we need to step back and make a couple of things more clear.

New Deputy Chief Operating Officer for Ethics and Integrity Joanne SawyerKnoll recently announced the official launch of the city’s new Ethics and Integrity Office, which will develop a citywide code of ethics manual and monitor complaints of waste and fraud within the government.

Seems some city employees — and pretty much everyone else — might still be confused about what the Ethics Commission, a separate entity, does.

We talked with Ethics Commission Executive Director Stacey Fulhorst to find out.

The Ethics Commission will continue to collect complaints related to the city’s election laws, lobbying laws and other potential violations of the city’s ethics ordinance, which includes limits on gifts to public officials, prohibitions on conflicts of interest and other actionable offenses.

Fulhorst wanted to highlight that the new ethics post in the mayor’s office does not indicate that all ethics complaints — especially the ones she handles — will be heard by the mayor.

“Complaints that fall under the jurisdiction of the Ethics Commission are to come directly to the commission. They’re handled in a confidential manner and are not shared with any city office including the office of the mayor,” she said.

So what does the mayor’s office handle?

It appears as though SawyerKnoll will handle more values-based complaints that highlight potential waste in the government. Like “My coworker is currently sleeping on the job. Like, literally sleeping, with drool and everything.”

—SCOTT LEWIS

Preovolos: Do-over Delayed

Although scheduled to be heard at Friday’s meeting, the retirement board will not re-hear requests to provide legal defense funding for former pension Administrator Larry Grissom and in-house attorney Lori Chapin — until at least March.

Retirement board President Peter Preovolos said the rules governing the 13-member board say that any question that goes supported by less than seven votes and opposed by less than seven votes is automatically reconsidered at the next month’s meeting. Preovolos said he and the attorneys representing Grissom and Chapin were unaware of the rule when the agenda was released Monday. Preovolos said there was not enough time for the attorneys to schedule an appearance.

Grissom and Chapin were indicted Jan. 6 along with six former pension trustees for their involvement in a 2002 arrangement that allowed the city relief from its pension bill while also allegedly boosting defendants’ pension checks.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Another Domino Falls

The latest downtown condo development to sell up is Intergulf’s Citipoint development slated for Broadway and 17th streets.

Intergulf’s CEO Joe Werner said the land where the 364-condo and commercial building would have been housed is being sold to nearby San Diego City College to facilitate an expansion of the college facilities.

Werner said Intergulf was threatened with eminent domain on the property.

“Rather than sitting it out for two years in court, we thought we would sell it, make a little money on it and move on,” Werner said.

He added that the decision was in no way related to the cooling downtown condo market. He said that market is slowing, but that he still regards the “loss” of the site as a “missed opportunity.”

Citipoint is at least the second downtown condo development to be cancelled this month. A week ago The Elle, a Little Italy condo project, was put up for sale by a consortium of developers from Los Angeles.

Experts have said that up to 40 percent of the condos slated for downtown San Diego may never get off the drawing board as the market cools. Downtown inventory has risen week-on-week since the first of the year and there has been no resulting increase in sales.

— WILL CARLESS

The Authority’s State

San Diego Regional Airport Authority Chairman Joe Craver didn’t reveal any surprises or new programs in his State of the Authority address today.

The biggest issue facing the authority? Selecting a site for a new airport, Craver said. He called the choice “one of this generation’s greatest public policy decisions ever made in our county.”

Craver was upbeat during his 12-minute speech, and doled out effusive praise to just about everyone in San Diego.

Craver on the authority board: “You are all highly talented, knowledgeable and experienced individuals who bring distinct and important points of view to the table.”

On the city’s military community: “We have total respect and admiration for the Armed Forces.”

On the city of San Diego: “We have words of gratitude for the patience the San Diego community has shown and the confidence they have placed in us to bring forward the best ballot recommendation.”

On the authority itself: “Of all the organizations that I have worked for throughout my career, I can truthfully say that the Airport Authority staff is the best in its level of competence to get the job done.”

—ROB DAVIS

Public Safety’s Savior?

Homeland Security expert Jill Olen took the helm today as the city’s deputy chief operating officer for public safety.

Olen will coordinate budgets and strategy for San Diego’s fire and police departments and oversee the city’s Homeland Security Department.

Mayor Jerry Sanders said he had not anticipated filling the position until next fiscal year. He and his staff, however, expedited the hiring process after receiving and reviewing an unsolicited resume from Olen.

The security expert currently serves as an attorney and an adjunct professor at National University’s Homeland Security and Safety Engineering program. She has previous experience as a senior military advisor, including work at the Pentagon during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Along with coordinating homeland security strategy, Olen will work with the mayor to pursue alternative sources of funding for the fire and police departments.

He said that Olen shares his vision of returning San Diego to the Homeland Security Department’s primary funding list for 2007.

At her new post, Olen will receive a salary of $168,000.

— SAM HODGSON

Legal Fee Do-Over

After failing last month to approve funding for the legal defense of two now-indicted former staff members, the city’s embattled retirement board will reconsider whether to pay the attorney fees for former Administrator Larry Grissom and the system’s ex-legal advisor Lori Chapin at Friday’s meeting.

Seven of the trustees overseeing the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System must vote to OK spending money from the trust on legal defense fees, although only nine of the 13 board seats are currently filled. On Jan. 30, five trustees voted to provide legal defense funding for Grissom and Chapin while two voted against and one abstained and one was absent from the meeting.

Assuming the rest of the board maintains their yes or no vote, both firefighter representative John Thomson and citizen trustee Richard Kipperman would have to vote yes Friday for SDCERS to pay Chapin’s and Grissom’s legal bills. Both were indicted along with firefighters union President Ron Saathoff, former Assistant Auditor Terri Webster and former Human Resources Director Cathy Lexin for their involvement in a 2002 deal that allowed the city to skirt its pension bill while also allegedly boosting the benefits of the defendants.

SDCERS paid the attorneys fees for Grissom and Chapin until they were indicted Jan. 6.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

The San Diego Ethics Commission announced last week fines against a former mayoral candidate for not disclosing certain campaign expenses and six city employees for failing to fill out their statements of economic interest on time.

Peter Q. Davis, who competed in the 2004 mayoral primary, agreed to a $2,500 fine because his campaign did not show that it had paid nearly $83,000 to subvendors through Davis’ campaign manager and independent contractors. Also, the commission found that the campaign committee failed to disclose $10,000 in accrued bills that it did not pay reporting period. Davis finished third to former Mayor Dick Murphy and county Supervisor Ron Roberts in the primary contest.

The six employees were fined between $200 and $400 as part of their settlement. The city requires city officials to annually file statements disclosing their investments, real estate holdings, loans and income sources to assure the public that employees aren’t influencing decisions affecting their personal finances, Ethics Commission Executive Director Stacy Fulhorst said in a press statement.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Yes or No?

A Superior Court judge ordered the city of San Diego on Friday to either admit or deny that statements made in City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s investigative reports are facts that can be used in a civil lawsuit seeking a $178 million payment into the pension fund.

Judge Richard Strauss honored ex-city worker William McGuigan’s request that the city admit to 32 claims that the city violated its fiduciary responsibilities as well as state and city law because such statements were made in the three of Aguirre’s interim reports.

McGuigan, formerly an employee in the city’s General Services Department, wants the city to repair its ailing retirement fund after the city did not meet its pension obligations between 1996 and 2005, when the city paid less than an actuarially determined amount. The city’s current pension deficit is estimated to be almost $2 billion, and the retirement plan has about $2 for every $3 it owes.

The city will have to decide whether deals struck in 1996 and 2002 as well as the city’s funding practices leading up to this fiscal year were illegal for the purposes of the McGuigan case after Aguirre made such findings in Interim Reports Nos. 2, 3 and 6.

The city began paying down its pension debt at an actuarially-determined rate in fiscal year 2006 after retiree Jim Gleason settled with the city in 2004. The $163 million payment this year forced several cuts to an already-thin day-to-day budget for the city. Gleason and McGuigan are both represented by attorney Michael Conger.

Also on Friday, Strauss denied the city’s attempt to throw the case out.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

If the Sky Falls (Again)

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services apparently has a soft spot for Voice of San Diego.

The department spent another $2.25 in postage to send us a second 260-page reference guide to terrorism and public health emergencies. Yes, they included more of the cool fold-out cards.

The box they mailed it in warns that it’s for official business only. The penalty for private use is $300. We’re not sure what that means.

But we do know what tularemia is now. (A disease caused by bacteria, which could be released in air, food or water. Symptoms generally begin within three to five days. Antibiotics treat it.)

And we now know that a nuclear device is a “powerful bomb involving splitting of atoms. Comes in various sizes and types, producing various levels of destruction.”

— ROB DAVIS

Oh, Fudge

The beach remained closed between Bird Rock in La Jolla and Tourmaline Surf Park in Pacific Beach Friday, after yesterday’s 3,000 gallon sewage spill.

The early morning mess was caused Thursday by a root blocking a sewer main near Midway Street at Calumet Park, according to a release from the county Department of Environmental Health. City crews that removed the blockage around noon were able to recover 360 gallons of sewage. The rest spilled into a storm drain that empties into the Pacific.

The beach has been posted, and will remain closed until samples show the water is safe for recreation.

It’s the second spill in the county this year. In January, 4,000 gallons of sewage spilled into Lake Hodges, after an Escondido pump station failed.

For updates, call (619) 338-2073 or check on-line at www.earth911.org.

—ROB DAVIS

Airport Headed North?

Two North County sites have been identified as possible homes for an airport that could supplement Lindbergh Field.

The sites — near Valley Center and in Rancho Guejito — will be evaluated Monday by the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s strategic planning committee.

If the committee finds either option appealing, they would join seven other sites being seriously evaluated as the authority draws closer to choosing a home for a new airport.

The Valley Center site, north of Escondido and east of Interstate 15, would require the relocation of 680 residents, according to an analysis the committee will review Monday. Another 910 residents would be affected by airport noise, the analysis says.

The Rancho Guejito site, east of Escondido on Highway 78, would impact fewer residents: 10 would be relocated and 20 would have noise issues, the anaylsis says. Both sites would affect less than five acres of wetlands.

Both supplemental airports would have one runway, and could possibly draw fliers from Riverside and Orange counties.

But neither site is assured of getting out of the committee. If members want a deeper look, they could send the ideas to the full board to discuss in late February or March.

“Right now, it’s one concept we’re studying,” said Angela Shafer-Payne, the authority’s vice president of strategic planning.

— ROB DAVIS

Will It Be Built?

I recently joined the Yahoo discussion group for the as-yet-un-built Vantage Pointe condo project in downtown.

The messages posted on the bulletin board make for interesting reading.

Several people have expressed concerns that the 679-unit project will be built. Right now, it’s just a hole in the ground, and some message posters have left messages saying that they’re concerned that there seems to be very little actual building going on.

Industry experts have told me that, once the foundation hole for a huge condo building is dug, the builders have to wait for the earth around the hole to “settle.”

While that settling is going on, investors in the project are getting distinctly unsettled, asking questions about whether the project will go the same way as The Elle, a planned Little Italy condo project that recently went up for sale, plans and all.

The live Webcam on the Centre City Development Corp.’s site shows plenty of activity there Friday morning. Keep checking back to see whether the project gets off (or out) of the ground.

— WILL CARLESS

Wacky Money

The city of San Diego has plans to sell the rights to $10.3 million of the money it gets as a result of the settlements in 1998 with tobacco companies. At that rate, city officials project they will be able to pay off the $100 million loan they seek for the pension fund within 16 years. They also project they will receive more than $10.3 million a year.

However, if they don’t, they will be forced to pay the bond out for more than 16 years, thereby increasing the costs of the loan. And the money isn’t guaranteed to stay above their projections. In fact, a look at the city’s tobacco revenues dating back to 2000 shows that the flow of funds (which represent a certain percentage of tobacco companies’ annual revenues) has fluctuated greatly.

The first year the city received $12.9 million, but that figured varied in the following years: $9.5 million in 2001; $11.8 million in 2002; $12.1 million in 2003; $10 million in 2004; and $10.1 million in 2005.

But the city projects its tobacco revenues will steadily increase annually by about $100,000 a year until 2017.

Also, remember that $312 million library plan that former Mayor Dick Murphy and Councilman Jim Madaffer put forth with much hoopla in 2002? The one that includes the controversial $185 million new central library?

Yeah, well, part of that massive financing project actually was supposed to rely on tobacco settlement money to fund library-construction bonds.

However, the city’s budget pinch and its suspended credit rating forced council to nix that part of the financing plan beginning in 2004. Previously, between $1.6 million and $3.8 million of the tobacco settlement funds annually went to library construction.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Mayor’s Watchdogs Unleashed

Mayor Jerry Sanders announced the official launch of the city’s new Ethics and Integrity Office, which will develop a citywide code of ethics manual and monitor complaints of waste and fraud within the government.

“Because of conversations, observations, the mayor has heard that there is a real need for this,” said Joanne SawyerKnoll, the office’s chief administrator.

In addition to preparing a code of ethics for the city, the office will also provide ethical training for employees and respond to complaints that are received through a telephone answering service where workers can anonymously file complaints. The hotline receives an average of one complaint a day, SawyerKnoll said.

SawyerKnoll said she has hired three employees and may soon add more, although she does not know how much her department will be allocated in the budget Sanders proposes this spring.

Currently, ethics violations are referred to the Ethics Commission, which is headed by seven citizen commissioners.

SawyerKnoll said that complaints received from an employee hotline will be reviewed by a panel consisting of representatives from her department and the Auditor’s Office, who used to operate the hotline. She said it was not clear how the panel would pursue complaints that required investigation, but promised regular updates to the City Council. Borrowing an investigator from the city attorney may be an option, SawyerKnoll said.

It was unclear how far along in the process, if it all, complaints would be made public information, she said.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Orbitz’s Taxes Too Bitty

City Attorney Mike Aguirre said Thursday that the city is filing a lawsuit against Web-based travel agencies who are not paying their fair share of hotel taxes.

The suit alleges that more than a dozen companies including Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity are skirting taxes by assessing the discounted value they pay for rooms, not what the customers rent them for through their site.

The suit could be worth tens of millions of dollars, a deputy city attorney said in November when the suit was being mulled.

Read more about the city of San Diego’s case here.

-EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Wowie Zillowie

A pretty incredible new Web site, www.zillow.com, allows anybody interested to check out an estimate for the price of just about any home in the United States.

The site, which uses a combination of satellite images and a detailed mix of real estate information, is the brainchild of Expedia founders Rich Barton and Lloyd Fink.

Don’t ask me how it works, but according to information on the Web site, the site makes an estimate, or “zestimate,” of the value of a home, by using “zillions of data points, mainly from public records, and entering them in a formula.”

As well as scanning all over San Diego and the United States to check out home values, the site also allows users to pick a specific house and take a look at all the home’s nitty gritty, from its square footage, to the number of bedrooms it has, to its value over the past 12 months.

It’s great fun.

Though the site has had some teething problems — it was down for most of the day yesterday and remains achingly slow at times — it has created quite a stir in the world of real estate blogging, and has been followed closely by the New York Times’ new real estate blog The Walk Through.

Enjoy

— WILL CARLESS

To A Record Inventory?

Bubble markets inventory tracking, a site that — you guessed it — tracks real estate markets in the United States that are considered by some to be in a “bubble,” listed San Diego County’s inventory at its highest level since November 2005.

Inventory levels are important to Realtors because they indicate how many homes are for sale at any one time. Generally, the more inventory available to buyers, the longer homes will take to sell. Greater inventory levels also tend to have a depressing effect on home values.

Inventory figures listed on the Web site have increased week-on-week in 2006, and the amount of inventory increased by 89 properties last week to 16,397.

The site lists the record-high inventory of homes in San Diego County as 19,000 homes in July 1995 and the record low inventory as 2,301 homes in March 2004.

That means the county’s inventory of homes has increased by 713 percent since March 2004.

For the record, this is the first time I’ve used “bubble” in a real estate story.

— WILL CARLESS

Desperately Seeking Buyers

Where have all the buyers gone? That was the rhetorical question an Escondido Realtor asked me during an interview today.

Judy Kesselring, a Realtor with Keller Williams in Escondido, said she has seen the real estate market turn full circle in the last 12 months.

Last year, Kesselring said, she could put a home on the market and it would be snapped up in a week or so, with multiple offers, for above listing price.

These days, she said a Realtor is lucky if more than a couple of people show up to an open house. Despite spending money on the promotion of properties and holding multiple open house events for their listings, Kesselring said sellers are lucky if they can get their asking price, if they can sell at all.

— WILL CARLESS

On Time (Mostly)

San Diego International Airport beat the national average for on-time arrivals and departures last year, according to a U.S. Transportation Department study released this month.

Those who landed here last year arrived on-time 74.3 percent of the time. Eighty-percent of departing flights left on time.

The airport beat the 71-percent national average, although flying into LAX is slightly more reliable (75.2 percent on-time), even if the 405 isn’t. Leaving from LAX is a bit less ideal than here, with 78.6 percent of flights departing on-time.

A word of warning if you’re flying on Southwest Airlines flight 3462 from Houston to Shreveport, La. The flight was one of two flights in the nation that was always at least 15 minutes late. All the time. The average delay was 56 minutes.

— ROB DAVIS

Condo Inventory Keeps Rising

The inventory of condos in downtown San Diego rose last week for the fifth week running since the beginning of the year, according to statistics compiled by Lew Breeze, a downtown Realtor.

The total number of downtown condos available on the market (excluding developer units) was 481 this week, up from 472 last week.

The median price of condos in the 92101 ZIP code listed on the Multiple Listings Service dropped for the seventh consecutive week, down $1000 from last week to $649,000.

Breeze has been compiling the statistics from the Multiple Listings Service since 2003. The statistics can be viewed at www.92101.info.

— WILL CARLESS

Street Sweeps, Not Cadillacs

Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006 — 9:11 a.m.

  The union representing the city of San Diego’s blue-collar workers said they wanted to set the record straight Tuesday, saying they have fulfilled their promises despite working for the financially shaky city.

“Like the rest of our community, Local 127 employees are concerned about the financial health of our city,” said the report the 2,000-member chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees released. “We believe the facts regarding our employment, wages and benefits are being misrepresented.”

The 15-page report said city officials skipped its obligation to fund its workers’ pensions in order to fund pet projects such as the 1996 Republican National Convention, the Chargers ticket guaranty and Petco Park. The city now faces draconian cuts to its day-to-day budget as it struggles to pay off its pension bill, which is estimated to be almost $2 billion.

“We did not have control over these bad decisions. Nevertheless, we have stepped forward and put real money on the table to address the pension dilemma,” the report said, referring salary cut they conceded to in its current contract.

San Diego’s blue-collar city workers were also not earning “Cadillac pensions” or excessive salaries, the report said. The average Local 127 workers would earn a pension of about $21,000 and make $41,000 annually in salary, according to the study.

The report cited resident satisfaction surveys that showed marks of high approval for city workers and also compared the ratio of city workers to residents being lower than other big California cities. Also, the city was taking in less taxes per-resident than other cities in the state, the report said.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

The attempt to further sort the pension holdings of the port district and airport authority from within the city’s troubled retirement system will be delayed.

Retirement board President Peter Preovolos told Port Chairman William Hall in a letter this week that the retirement system’s tax lawyers had advised that the port and the airport authority should not revise their contracts without the deal first being approved by the Internal Revenue Service.

“While our intention was to bring this matter to the Board for action in February, based upon the cautionary advice we have received from our tax counsel, I cannot support approval of the amended agreements at this time,” Preovolos stated.

The proposal being sought by the port and the airport would shorten the notice they would have to give the San Diego City Employees’ Retirement System if they wanted to pull out of the trust from one year to six months. It would also strengthen the barriers between the different agencies’ assets and make more transparent how administrative costs are divvied up between the city, port district and airport authority.

The move being pondered by the port and airport, which together own about 5 percent of the retirement system’s holdings, does not comply with the City Charter or the retirement system’s IRS filings, Preovolos said. Changing those guidelines would take more time and probably more money, he said.

“This undoubtedly would involve considerable time, attorneys’ fees and IRS filing fees,” the letter said.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Wither the Water?

Conserve your water for the next 10 days. The San Diego County Water Authority is asking. Nicely.

The conservation call isn’t mandatory. But a treatment plant that’s a major source of the county’s water is offline until Feb. 15. And if you’ve stepped outside today, you know it’s warm — 80s inland, 70s on the coast. So more people are using water.

The result: A stressed-out water system. It’s worst in North County, where commercial irrigation is being halted in four water districts. But the rest of the San Diego area should use common sense, said John Liarakos, a water authority spokesman.

The cause lies with the Skinner Treatment plant in southwestern Riverside County, which is being upgraded to increase capacity. Construction started Sunday at the plant, which Liarakos said provides 45 percent of San Diego County’s imported water.

The authority has some tips for water conservation: Don’t water your lawn. Take shorter showers. Fix leaks. Turn off the water when you brush your teeth. Run the dishwasher only when full.

You can go back to your long, relaxing showers on Feb. 17.

— ROB DAVIS

Righting the Blight Flight

Owners of vacant properties in San Diego are now subject to higher fines and will have to revise their plans for rehabilitating or demolishing properties more often under new rules the mayor signed into law today.

Landlords who violate the city’s vacant property laws will face a maximum fine of $5,000 every year, five times the amount levied under previous regulations. Also, the new law requires owners of neglected properties to draw up a game plan for how to repair the property annually until it’s cleaned up rather than doing so just once. 

“Blighted properties invite a host of unwelcome activities ranging from unsightly graffiti to dumping to being a magnet for drug transactions and prostitutions,” Mayor Jerry Sanders said. “Unfortunately, like a weed, one abandoned or badly neglected property oftentimes starts a downward spiral for a community.”

At a press conference near three abandoned bungalows in East Village, Sanders signed off on the stricter property guidelines, the first stamp-of-approval he has issued since the city’s switch to the strong-mayor form of governance. Under the former structure, the mayor held one vote just like other council members.

Sanders was joined by Councilman Ben Hueso and City Attorney Mike Aguirre, whose office authored a legal opinion in October that advised the council how neglected properties could be improved.

Hueso said the district he oversees has been degraded over the years because of neglected properties.

“Vacant lots impose a very serious economic and health hazard in the communities of our district,” said Hueso, who was sworn into office the same day the council approved the new law.

The officials said the law Sanders signed Tuesday was the first step to correcting the city’s neglected-property rules. Sanders said he will be working with the city’s Neighborhood Code Compliance Department to review dilapidated commercial buildings and construction projects that have been ongoing for years.

EVAN McLAUGHLIN

If the Sky Falls…

Voice of San Diego today received a packet from the Department of Health and Human Services with little cards that unfold very impressively and advise us on what to do in case of a biological, chemical or radiological attack.

In case a nuclear device is detonated in the San Diego region, DHHS advises Voice and the rest of you appropriately.

“Do not look toward the explosion. Seek shelter behind any shield or in a basement. Lie on the ground and cover your head,” it reads.

And if you are exposed to anthrax and wondering what to do, the super-card has a helpful hint.

“Contact your health provider,” it says.

— SCOTT LEWIS

Old Friends, New Friends

City Attorney Mike Aguirre and Councilwoman Donna Frye have long been allies and Aguirre came out in support of her in the final weeks of last fall’s mayoral election. However, in short time, Aguirre has buddied up with new Mayor Jerry Sanders.

During yesterday’s council hearing the city attorney took to explaining and advocating the mayor’s bonding plan — one similar to a plan previously bashed by Aguirre — to Frye.

“I appreciate you speaking for the mayor,” Frye responded dryly.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Craigslist Charges

Craigslist, a Web site that lists classified advertising and hosts discussion boards for free, is considering charging for job listings on its San Diego Web site, the Washington Post reported today.

The article lists job advertisements in San Diego as one possible part of the Craigslist empire that might become fee-based. The company is also considering charging for real estate listings in New York City and job listings in Washington.

The Web site maintains an active forum on housing and real estate issues in San Diego at http://forums.sandiego.craigslist.org/?forumID=6

— WILL CARLESS

Positive Pointe of View

An earlier This Just In item below announced that Pointe of View Developments have put their planned development, Pacific Point of View, up for sale.

That item was based on information provided by a saleswoman at Pointe of View’s downtown sales office. However, Randy Klapstein, CEO of Pointe of View Developments Inc., said the development is “not really officially up for sale.”

Klapstein said he was recently given an offer he could not refuse for the property, but that the sale expired due to historical issues with the land. A building on the land was designated as a historical building, Klapstein said, which prevented the sale from going through.

The property is no longer on the market as Pointe of View works out what to do with the historical building on the site.

Klapstein said once that hurdle has been crossed, he would consider dealing with the prospective purchaser who made the previous offer. However, he said he did not expect to receive other unsolicited offers, as the property is not listed on the market.

Klapstein said he has in no way lost faith in the downtown San Diego market, which he described as a great market that is currently experiencing some calm in a period of exploding growth.

“As downtown develops, it’s becoming more and more desirable,” Klapstein said.

Explaining why he has considered selling the land where Pacific Pointe would be built, Klapstein said he had simply been offered more than he had anticipated for the land, and that he had to take advantage of the offer.

— WILL CARLESS

300 Butts at Beach

Monday, Feb. 6, 2006 — 12:47 p.m.

Council President Scott Peters and Councilman Jim Madaffer introduced a proposal today that would ban smoking at all city of San Diego parks and beaches.

The ordinance, which the councilmen hope passes through the City Council by summer, would call for the posting of signs at public parks and beaches and perhaps make smoking in these public areas reason to be fined.

Madaffer touted the Surfrider Foundation’s “Hold onto your butts” campaign as an important step toward cleaning up city beaches. The environmental nonprofit organization has launched an awareness campaign, but Madaffer said that an ordinance would be an effective way to stop the problem of butt-ridden beaches before it occurs.

Before the press conference, a member of Peters’ office collected a bag full of 300 cigarette butts in an hour from La Jolla Shores — where a few months earlier the environmental group Coastkeeper had conducted a beach cleanup.

Questions have been raised about how the city will finance and enforce such an ordinance. The councilmen did not have any estimates about startup costs for the program and Peters said today that smokers would most likely regulate themselves.

“What we’re expecting to have happen here is this will be mostly self-policing and this will not involve a large expenditure of money or of personnel time and were expecting people to behave,” Peters said. “And once you make something illegal it kind of changes the norm and on its own it will take care of itself.

“If there’s a real problem you can address it through citations, but I think what we’ll find is people want to behave and want to comply with the law and will be mostly self-policing.”

The councilmen proposed adding a box onto the current tickets that police officers issue so that the smoking enforcement could become a part of their normal patrol.

The proposal will now move on to the City Council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee for public input.

— SAM HODGSON

Dominos Falling?

Canada-based Pointe of View Developments is the latest condo developer to decide it’s better to sell than stick with their project in downtown San Diego.

According to a saleswoman at Pointe of View’s downtown San Diego office, the developers have put their planned Pacific Pointe up for sale.

Last Thursday, Voice of San Diego published a story about Bay Structures, LLC, which has decided to sell their development The Elle. We asked whether this was becoming a trend, and if so, why.

Pacific Pointe, planned for Broadway and 11th Avenue, was to be a 36-floor twin tower with 450 units. The ground floor of the building was to be made available for commercial and retail space.

Voice reporters have placed calls to Pointe of View and we will update this section as we learn more about the sale.

— WILL CARLESS

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