Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Detox Feelings Mixed

A representative in the city’s Development Services Department said today that the proposed Pacific Beach site for the county’s drunk tank does not have to go through a extensive environmental impact study.

Councilman Kevin Faulconer and City Attorney Mike Aguirre asked that the council postpone relocating the Volunteers of America detoxification center so that a rigorous study could be performed, but apparently the city’s staff reviewed the proposal and determined it sound. Faulconer and Aguirre said the impacts of having the detox center so close to residences could be problematic.

“We don’t think it’s necessary because we think those impacts are mitigable,” said Cynthia Queen, a spokeswoman for development services.

The City Council is scheduled to consider on Tuesday at 2 p.m. whether to allow the detox center to move to Pacific Beach. Its current downtown location is expected to be turned into condos.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Vacant Cash Vacuums

Lew Breeze, a Realtor in downtown San Diego who tracks the downtown condo market, has been doing some calculations.

He’s worked out a ballpark figure for how much is being spent on all the condos that are up for sale in downtown that are currently vacant. Breeze figured out that about 43 percent of the condos up for sale are vacant — that’s about 203 vacant lots this week.

Breeze then worked out roughly how much each condo owner must be paying every month in property taxes and home owner’s association fees.

He figures the total amount being spent by downtown owners to maintain their vacant units is in the region of $760,000 a month.

“Wow! That’s a heck of a lot of disposable income,” commented Breeze in an e-mail to Voice.

You can check out Breeze’s Web site at http://www.sandiegodowntown.info/.

— WILL CARLESS

Mayor Not Disabled

Rumors have swirled around City Hall recently speculating that Mayor Jerry Sanders is collecting a disability retirement from his former service as police chief.

Not true.

Sanders left his post with a normal retirement after 26.39 years of service. He did, however, collect a one-time allowance of $5,000 for hearing loss he sustained from listening to his gun go off too much.

Sanders promised during the campaign that, if elected mayor, he wouldn’t collect a pension.

But that, apparently, is impossible. The retirement system will not just stop payment on pensions.

So, instead, the mayor chose to lower his salary as mayor to $36,000 a year — allowing many San Diegans the joy of bragging that they, maybe for the first time in their lives, earn a higher salary than the mayor. The mayor normally earns $100,000.

— SCOTT LEWIS

Back to the Ballot

Mayor Jerry Sanders stood today with a group of local political and business leaders to announce that he will ask the City Council to place two ballot measures before voters in the Nov. 7 election.

One measure would mandate that all pension-benefit increases negotiated between unions and city officials be approved ultimately by voters. A second measure would open up a number of city services to competition from the private sector. Both measures were part of Sanders’ campaign pledges. 

A number of city employees protested the announcement outside the mayor’s office Thursday as reporters and guests filed into Sanders’ press conference. Joining the mayor at the press conference was a sizable crowd of representatives from business organizations such as the Lincoln Club, Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Corp., and interest groups from the restaurant and lodging industries.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre and City Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and Brian Maienschein also stood with Sanders.

The proposals are slated to be discussed Wednesday at 9 a.m. during a meeting of the council’s Rules Committee.

The mayor, taking a page out of President Bush’s book, has taken to placing signs behind him at certain events with key words to serve as a backdrop. A large sign containing words such as “integrity” and “accountability” stood behind Sanders as television cameras recorded the event.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Google, Truli

A company based out of San Francisco has found an innovative way of helping home buyers search out a property.

Trulia, whose Web site is www.trulia.com takes real estate listings and overlays them onto a Google map. Customers can then search out a property by using the Web site’s search tools.

The Web site also has a comprehensive home buyers’ guide to San Diego.

— WILL CARLESS

Researching Realtors

A study released this week by the California Association of Realtors gives some fascinating insights into the state’s real estate profession.

The study’s authors started following the careers of 100 new Realtors in 2000 and, as the association’s Web site puts it, “The results paint a picture of what new agents struggle with, how they have been able to survive, and what makes them thrive in the real estate industry.”

The study found that only 43 percent of the original 100 remained in real estate after five years, the rest left the industry. It asked the people who left the industry what their reasons were for leaving and sought to establish what it takes to be a success as a real estate professional.

The report is especially interesting considering the flood of Realtors entering the market. A December story in Voice, Attack of the Realtors examined this trend in detail.

— WILL CARLESS

Asphalt Jungle Podcast

Voice’s three-part series on Mission Valley has struck a chord with thousands across San Diego County. Staff Writer Will Carless appeared on yesterday’s These Days radio program on KPBS-FM where he talked about the community’s history and the problems experienced by residents as a result of the lack of planning for the area. You can listen to Will’s interview with radio host Tom Fudge on the KPBS Web site.

DENISE SCATENA

Smokes and Mirrors

The city’s budget has often been derided for using “smoke and mirrors” tricks to shuffle money between funds and create the appearance of fiscal competency. The recent focus on the city’s tobacco settlement money has proven that statement to be a bit more literal than originally imagined.

Forty-six states and the tobacco companies reached a settlement in 1998 that would dedicate a fixed percentage of tobacco profits to state governments to atone for the health-care costs incurred by governments treating sick smokers. California, in turn, passes along a piece of that pie to cities such as San Diego. City officials, led by Mayor Jerry Sanders, announced a plan this week to annually set aside the city’s $10.3 million in tobacco funds in exchange for $100 million upfront to infuse into the struggling pension system.

Officials said not to worry, the money for the health and children’s programs sponsored by the tobacco settlement money would be backfilled by money freed up through labor concessions worked out in the latest union contracts.

It turns out that the city really hasn’t been using too much of that tobacco money for health programs, anyways. It’s been using it to fill gaps in its day-to-day budget.

In the fiscal year 2006 budget, the city spent $950,000 of its $10.1 million tobacco settlement funds for parks, a “healthy kids program” and enforcing anti-smoking and anti-substance laws.

The remainder of the $9.2 million in tobacco funds was transferred directly into the city’s day-to-day operating budget.

In 2005, the city also spent $950,000 on parks, programs and enforcement. However, it used $2.2 million of that money to go into a library system improvements program. The library allotment was gutted from the tobacco settlement funds in 2006, when the city was forced to close a sizable budget deficit and cut parks, libraries and other programs.

Earlier this week, the American Lung Association named the city of San Diego as one of the region’s “laggards” in measuring how local governments spend their share of the tobacco settlement.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Federal Five: Not Guilty

The five former pension officials indicted last month on corruption charges pleaded not guilty during their arraignment Wednesday.

Ex-retirement trustees Ron Saathoff, Cathy Lexin and Terri Webster; former pension Administrator Larry Grissom; and the retirement system’s former in-house legal counsel Lori Chapin were charged for their role in approving a deal between the city and the retirement system that allowed the city relief from its pension bill in 2002.

The pact allegedly boosted the future retirement pay for the five defendants, and particularly focuses on a benefit granted to Saathoff, president of the firefighters union, that allows him to combine his union and city salaries when calculating his pension income.

Read the Voice on Thursday for a full story, or review our Jan. 7 article for more information on the indictments.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

Downtown Sales “Slow”

Figures from the Multiple Listing Service showed there were 42 completed sales in downtown San Diego in January, a number significantly lower than the sales downtown Realtors have been accustomed to.

“That’s very low” said Jim Abbott, a Realtor who lives and works in downtown.

Abbott said sales figures last year were typically between 50 and 60 sales a month. There were 48 sales last January.

— WILL CARLESS

(Clarification: The original version of this post erroneously attributed information to sources other than Abbott. Voice regrets the error.)

Breeze’s Clarification

Little Italy Realtor Lew Breeze wrote to the Voice this afternoon wishing to clarify why he has changed how he collects and compiles data on the downtown housing market.

“In response to the “This Just In…Breaking News-Blog” story on Feb. 1, 2006 regarding New Condo Numbers. I feel the need to explain why I have changed the way I am counting the downtown inventory and median price,” Breeze writes.

“The general perception may be that I have changed my method, in order to hide (or lower) the inventory in Downtown San Diego; that I am manipulating the numbers. This simply isn’t true. In the past I was counting the entire inventory from the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). Those figures would have included any units the developers (builders) had decided to include on the MLS. The key word here is “decided”.

If in the past the builder figure was 25 (or 100), it was still only a fraction of the inventory the builders have to sell. Therefore those previous figures were artificial, not truly accurate, and I think misleading.

Also, including those units affected the median and average price, which isn’t a true reflection of prices on the resale market downtown. In the foreseeable future (for years to come) the builders will continue to have thousands of units to offer for sale.

What I hope to achieve with my figures (by not counting the builder units in my inventory figure) is to help the public gauge what is actually happening in the resale market. I don’t believe that can be achieved by including the builder units in my weekly count.”

Breeze can be contacted at: downtown@sdcondo.com.

— WILL CARLESS

End of Honeymoon?

When City Attorney Mike Aguirre put aside his differences with Kroll Inc. to support new Mayor Jerry Sanders’ recommendation to give the consultants an additional $10 million toward their investigation of City Hall, it was taken as a sign of solidarity in a budding friendship.

Today Aguirre wasn’t so diplomatic when decrying Kroll for their billings and actions. 

“Do I wish that he had it in him to fire Kroll today? Absolutely,” he said of the mayor.

— ANDREW DONOHUE and SAM HODGSON

Legal Blackout

City Attorney Mike Aguirre and Councilman Scott Peters traded blows today over the release of the council’s legal bills, which contained a substantial amount of blacked-out information.

Aguirre described this as another example of the City Council operating behind closed doors and withholding significant information from the public.

Peters defended the redacting of the information and pointed out that the decisions about withholding information were subject to the review of an independent, retired judge.

“I just hope that people understand that while there is an investigation going on, you can’t share every detail of the bills, and Mr. Aguirre as an attorney should know better than anyone else that you don’t release this kind of sensitive information in the middle of an investigation,” Peters said.

Aguirre called for Councilmembers Jim Madaffer, Brian Maienschein, Toni Atkins and Peters — who all hired independent attorneys to represent them in federal investigations — to release unredacted versions of their pension related legal bills. He also called on the city to stop paying the legal bills of these elected officials until they release this information.

A report in The San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper, stated that the council members, along with former Mayor Dick Murphy and former Councilman Michael Zucchet, have used about $1 million in taxpayer money to pay their legal bills.

Aguirre said today that that figure would probably come closer to $1.5 million.

— SAM HODGSON

New Condo Numbers

Little Italy Realtor Lew Breeze has changed the way he counts up the number of condos listed for sale in downtown San Diego.

Breeze, who has been tracking the condo inventory figures for the last three years, has decided to take out developer units — units that are listed for sale but have not yet been built — from the total figures listed on his Web site www.92101.info.

“Starting this week I’ll start estimating the number of “quality” units in these figures. This of course is not scientific or mathematical, though I’m doing my best to be objective,” read notes on Breeze’s blog today.

Breeze explained that the new figures will more accurately portray the downtown resale market, which is what he is interested in. 

As a result of this change in data compiling, for the first week since the beginning of the year, downtown San Diego’s condo inventory numbers dropped this week.

Average condo prices “rose” during the same period from $776,798 to $794,769.

— WILL CARLESS

County’s Comeback

County counsel John Sansone phoned in with his comments about Wednesday’s story about the decision the county of San Diego and its retirement system won Monday in the 4th District Court of Appeals.

Sansone described the ruling as being a “win-win” for pensioners, the county and the taxpayers, as it struck down two retirees’ argument that it was unconstitutional for county retirement board to use the set of calculations they did when figuring the county’s pension bill in 2003. The retirees said there was no benefit to the retirement system’s members to use a snapshot of the fund’s fiscal health that accounted for the $550 million in pension bond money that the county made that year when the board routinely takes a snapshot at a different time.

Sansone disagreed with plaintiffs’ attorney Michael Conger’s take, which was that the ruling created a new loophole to underfund plans by granting the retirement board the flexibility to weigh whether the bill they hand the county may strain the budget and cause layoffs. The county told its retirement board in 2003 that using the snapshot taken before the pension bond infusion would force about 1,500 layoffs.

The pension bonds were sold beforehand to improve the pension fund’s strength, Sansone said.

“When the county of San Diego provided that new payment, there was no legal requirement to do that. It was voluntary,” Sansone said. “The valuation should have reflected the influx … This is to encourage incentives to get money into the fund.”

The San Diego County Employees Retirement Association currently has $4 for every $5 it owes. The county’s pension debt, when including what it owes in bonds, is $2.5 million.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

A Promise Fulfilled

A stack of hundreds of letters of resignation from high-level city of San Diego employees landed on the desk of Scott Lewis on Politics, or SLOP™, Wednesday morning.

Loyal readers of SLOP™ will remember that we’ve been following up on new Mayor Jerry Sanders’ campaign promise to ask for letters of resignation from 300 of the city’s managers. Sanders had said he would ask for the letters and decide later which of them to accept.

We wondered what such letters would look like. After all, how do you write a letter of resignation that you don’t want to actually submit? We were a bit disappointed a couple of weeks ago when we learned that the mayor had eased the awkwardness by providing those managers with a form letter to fill out.

But in the stack are personal pleas and variations on the submitted letters that provide a bit of insight into this complex reorganization strategy.

And, of course, there are a few surprising, but logical, letters included in those resignation memos. In fact, even the city’s new chief operating officer — and Sanders’ second-in-command — Ronne Froman had to turn one in.

Log on tomorrow for the SLOP™ staff’s thorough analysis of the stack sitting on our desk.

—SCOTT LEWIS

Downtown Delays

The City Council delayed considering the proposed community plan update for San Diego’s downtown neighborhoods until Feb. 28. Councilman Kevin Faulconer, who was elected last month to represent downtown, requested the postponement because he wanted more time to work out the kinks.

Centre City Development Corp., the city’s downtown redevelopment planners, has been charting an update to how development downtown should be mapped out for several years.

Read more about CCDC’s proposal.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

The Real Story — Canceled

Something woke up our friends at the Union-Tribune Editorial Board 

The county retirement system recently found itself the defendant in a lawsuit filed by local accountant April Boling and her attorney Mike Conger. The county does not like such negative press about its pension system. So, the county’s pension board scheduled a special forum to give the public the real story Thursday afternoon.

But shortly after they scheduled the forum, they canceled it.

“Due to scheduling conflicts, the Special Retirement Board Meeting scheduled for 2:00 p.m. Feb. 2, has been postponed,” read a short memo from Von Jackson, the pension system’s executive secretary.

—SCOTT LEWIS

Condo Cancellations Still High

Cancellation rates on preconstruction properties remained high for the month of January, said Sharon Hanley, a Realtor who has compiled the rates for 25 years.

The cancellation rates in San Diego were 33 percent in January 2006, compared to 20 percent in January 2005 and less than 10 percent in January 2004.

A Dec. 15 Voice story, “A Tipping Point, Maybe,” reported that higher cancellation rates could well signal tough times ahead for the San Diego real estate market.

Hanley said that she watches the cancellation rates “like a hawk” because they are often a harbinger of problems to come.

Nevertheless, Hanley insisted the market looked “healthy,” with sales figures plumping up slightly at the end of January. She said the true test for the cancellation rates will come on Feb. 15.

“I look at a six-week moving average for these rates,” she said. “It’s not worth the powder to blow it up until Feb. 15.”

Voice will keep watching for the explosion, or rather, implosion.

— WILL CARLESS

Carrying Over the Hangover

The proposed Pacific Beach site for a detoxification center should be subjected to an environmental impact study, two city officials said.

Councilman Kevin Faulconer said he will ask the City Council to push back a vote on the detox center, which was slated to be heard at the council next week. The plan should undergo an environmental impact report that may take several months, he said, and City Attorney Mike Aguirre said he will prepare a legal opinion to that effect.

The proposed detox site is one block from residences in the eastern part of the neighborhood, near Interstate 5. Pacific Beach has been a battle ground between the crowds of twenty-somethings who frequent the beaches and Garnet Avenue bars and the older, established residents who frown on the alcohol-related impacts. The neighborhood accounts for a large chunk of the drunk-in-public citations issued in the county

Volunteers of America, who operates the county’s only detox center, is being relocated from its downtown site to make way for condos.

— EVAN McLAUGHLIN

NFL to LA

Officials with the National Football League and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum are expected this week to announce a lease deal that would set the table for bringing professional football back to the country’s second-largest media market, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Bankruptcy Update

Mayor Jerry Sanders told credit-rating agencies last week that there was nothing he’d seen in his first two months on the job that indicated the city’s problems weren’t manageable without Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, his spokesman said.

That comes after a month in which the mayor has admitted that the problems at the city were worse than he had thought during his campaign, and before Sanders has lured employee unions back to the negotiating table. On the campaign trail, Sanders said he thought the city would need to go into bankruptcy if he could not exact the concessions needed from employees in negotiations.

The goals of the negotiations would be to decrease future salary and pension costs. The current benefit levels at the heart of the pension problem cannot be legally negotiated away.

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Sunny-Powered SD

Just moments ago, the City Council unanimously passed a plan to enter into a 20-year agreement with Sun Edison SD LLC to provide solar power to San Diego.

Councilman Kevin Faulconer heralded the proposal made by Councilwoman Donna Frye as an innovative, exciting, cost saving plan.

“I want to agree with everything Councilmember Frye just said,” Faulconer told the council after a brief presentation by Frye.

The agreement is the first installment in the city’s plan to generate 50 megawatts of renewable energy by 2013. Frye said it will save the city about $6.5 million in capital costs, as Sun Edison SD LLC will own and operate the solar panels generating the power.

— SAM HODGSON

Empowered Panels

City Councilwoman Donna Frye announced a solar-energy plan today that will purportedly save the city $700,000 over the next 20 years in energy costs.

The plan calls for an agreement whereby Sun Edison SD LCC will build and operate solar energy systems, and will then sell the power to the city at a fixed rate.

The City Council is set to move on the item this afternoon, and Deputy Chief of Public Works Richard Haas was on hand outside the Environmental Services Department (or the “Green Building”) to announce the mayor’s support for the plan today.

In 2004, the city adopted a goal of generating 50-megawatts of renewable energy by 2013.

If passed by the council today, the 20-year agreement will call for the city to purchase nearly 1.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually from Sun Edison SD LLC. The photovoltaic system will be installed atop three water storage tanks, spanning 120,000 square feet, at the Alvarado Filtration Plant.

Keep your eyes on This Just In as we keep you updated on the council’s decision.

— SAM HODGSON

Condo Cancellation Rate “Healthier”

Sharon Hanley, a realtor who has compiled cancellation rates for preconstruction property deals for 25 years, said today that cancellation rates are looking less worrisome than they were a month ago.

“They’re still not great,” Hanley said. “It’s not going to be last year’s market, but it’s fine.”

A Dec. 15 Voice story, “A Tipping Point, Maybe,” reported that higher cancellation rates could well signal tough times ahead for the San Diego real estate market.

Hanley said that she watches the cancellation rates “like a hawk” because they are often a harbinger of problems to come.

Hanley did not yet have any specific cancellation rate figures for San Diego, but said that these figures should be available by tomorrow morning. She said the rates varied substantially between attached units and detached units.

Look for the details tomorrow.

— WILL CARLESS

C-SPAN, C-SPAN run, Run SPAN, Run

Thousands of wonks throughout the city of San Diego have prayed for the day that maybe, just maybe, C-SPAN could come to our town.

Well for those political junkies sitting by the tube waiting for a quick hit of public affairs, your day of reckoning is before you.

The C-SPAN circus is coming to town, bringing such local stars as Mayor Jerry Sanders, Councilwoman Donna Frye and U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, into the classrooms of six local high schools to discuss leadership and public service.

But the city officials and national appointees will not be the only stars of the six-part series. Also entering the media fray will be fish taco-legend Ralph Rubio and, Naval Air Forces Commander James Zortman and San Diego Community College Chancellor Constance Carroll.

The segments will be filmed Monday through Thursday, and will air Feb. 6 to 10 at 10 p.m. on C-SPAN 2.

— SAM HODGSON

Executive Benefits

California’s biggest companies are cutting or scaling back their pension plans. For employees, that is. Executives? Well, that’s a different story, reported the Los Angeles Times on Sunday.

One of the most glaring examples is San Diego’s Sempra Energy, the Times reported. Employees have been switched to a defined-contribution plan in which employees contribute to a nest egg, rather than the defined-benefit plan in which an employees’ benefits are guaranteed at a certain level when the retire. However, Sempra Chief Executive Stephen L. Baum “should get nearly $2 million a year for life in retirement,” the newspaper reported.

“All of our compensation packages are designed to attract and retain top-quality talent,” a Sempra spokeswoman said. “They are in line with what other Fortune 500 companies are doing.”

— ANDREW DONOHUE

Change the Channel

News Channel 10 broadened its linguistic horizons last week, following up on an announcement in November that the 10News Channel (which airs on basic cable as channel 15) will become a Spanish language channel.

Azteca America will air 144 Mexican League soccer games per year and broadcast five hours of news per day from Mexico City. The station joins a market where one-third of the television consumers watch Spanish-language television.

Channel 10 News Vice President Derek Dalton describes the new station as “One voice, two languages.”

The rebroadcast of Channel 10 news segments that was previously aired on channel 15, will now move to channel 100 for Cox digital cable, and channel 210 on Time Warner.

— SAM HODGSON

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