Tuesday, February 06, 2007 | Ethics Q Settled

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.


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 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, 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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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/.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


(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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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