There is a growing consensus among policy pundits that given the regular occurrence of fires in Southern California, we need to re-examine our growth policies. However, the policy train for San Diego has already left the station.

The city of San Diego’s draft General Plan addresses growth and its public service impacts for the next 20-plus years. It is already in the process of adoption with the Planning Commission hearing scheduled this Thursday. Over the life of the General Plan, the city population is forecasted to increase by 28 percent (2004 to 2030) to 1,656,257, and total housing units are projected to increase by 24 percent to 610,049. Since less than 4 percent of the city’s land remains vacant and available for development, the focus is on reuse and redevelopment of existing communities.

Where there are increases in density, there will be a need for new or enhanced public facilities. The draft General Plan calls for the city to reach the national standards of 5 minutes for the first engine to arrive at a scene after an alarm is received. Six additional fire stations are planned as part of an effort to reach accreditation.

But how are we going to pay for this? According to an accreditation“target=”_blank”>report for the city of San Diego:

The City has been unable to keep pace with the growth of San Diego in terms of

infrastructure, capital improvement projects, staffing and other critical resources on a citywide basis. The continued erosion of critical needs has resulted in a reduction of service levels that has also affected the Fire-Rescue Department.

In the facilities section of the proposed General Plan, a table listing potential revenue options (did someone say “taxes”?) for financing facilities was interestingly removed.

Thus impact assessments when new development occurs are the primary method of funding new facilities. However, do our assessments accurately reflect the cost of providing fire facilities? A model by Eben Fodor, author of Better Not Bigger shows that for each equivalent dwelling unit built in San Diego, it costs us an average $1,270 to pay for the currently planned fire facilities. We have a patchwork of facilities districts in the city that each assess and spend impact fees in different ways. For example, the community of Rancho Bernardo reflects all the symptoms of limited tax revenue, limited assessments and over-stretched services. It has a $12 fire facility fee (per thousand square feet) and needs two fire stations that are not even in the facilities plan.

Another method of financing facilities is floating Mello Roos bonds, a controversial scheme. In the Naval Training Center area of Point Loma, residents will see almost a doubling of their property taxes due to annual assessments that reimburse the developer for the new facilities that were constructed to serve the neighborhood.

Even more unclear is how we will pay for operations and maintenance. For example, when the Navy Broadway project was approved, I had pointed out that this project alone would add the burden of providing 3 new firefighters on the city – either we add new firefighters or we draw them in from other areas that are already underserved. Capital improvement funds, redevelopment tax increment and facilities assessments can only be used for construction of new facilities. Brian T. Peterson correctly points out:

Unfortunately for us all, tax increment may only be used to finance new construction. By law, it cannot be use for staffing needs. This diversion of money towards construction and away from people does us no good when it comes to hiring firefighters.

This leaves the rest of us wondering about the failed level of firefighting service, as we continue to grow under an umbrella that is not large enough to serve us all.


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