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In recent months, loyal users of the site, readers and listeners of our radio show and appearances on other broadcasts have heard me talk about The Dissolving City.

This is my observation that because the city of San Diego is, and has been, set up for years not to collect as much money as it is set up to spend, it has, slowly but surely, shifted the burden for neighborhood municipal services onto two main groups: nonprofits (and their donors) and small hyperlocal taxing organizations known as either maintenance assessment districts or business improvement districts.

What’s happening is simple: the city government, in so many words, has told neighborhoods from the border to Rancho Bernardo that if they want to protect or improve their parks, libraries, sidewalks or even, sometimes, their police protection, they’ll have to form either their own mini government or they’ll have to form and donate to a nonprofit.

The city has all but declared, for instance, that it cannot maintain Balboa Park and local philanthropic leaders are working furiously to figure out how they will be able to pay for the hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance and other needs in the park.

Elsewhere, there are more than 40 maintenance assessment districts in the city and that number is growing. Places like Talmadge, for example, are using them to fund things like streetlights. Talmadge has even gone so far to create its own little posse of marked security vehicles.

La Jolla’s library won’t be suffering the same cutbacks in hours that other libraries are. Why? Donors in La Jolla have made up the difference.

The message is clear, if you care about something the city provides, whether they are fire pits or trash cans, or parks or library hours, you’ll have to either figure out a way to form one of these little governments and get the vote approved by your neighbors, or you’ll have to get donors together.

The city is dissolving.

When I first started talking about this, I expressed it as an inherently obvious negative — a crisis even.

But there’s one person in San Diego working very hard to cast these changes as a very positive opportunity to recreate a fundamentally flawed municipal system.

Marco Li Mandri is the man most credit for the success of Little Italy. He runs the Little Italy Association and his business, New City America, goes around the country trying to set up these mini governments.

Full disclosure: When my wife and I moved to San Diego in 2003, we bought a condo in Little Italy and absolutely loved the neighborhood. We left it in 2005 and the community has only improved since then. It is full of amenities, it’s walkable, serviceable by public transit and just plain pleasant in an urban way the rest of downtown has failed to replicate.

In so many words, Li Mandri says let the city dissolve. Parks, libraries, sidewalks should all be taken care of locally by neighbors who have a direct say in how their neighborhood taxes are spent. Let the city of San Diego handle much bigger concerns.

So to start this series of Q&As with locals thinking about 2010, I’m going with Li Mandri. Here are his thoughts. They are provocative so I look forward to reading your responses.

In your opinion, what would the ideal municipal government look like? Who would provide the major city services like water, fire and police protection, sewage and mass transit? Who would provide the neighborhood services like parks, libraries and other needs?

We have run cities essentially the same for the past 100 years, ever since the introduction of the “progressive movement” in the state of California. We are at the functional end of this phase of city management.

Since WWII, and with factors including inexpensive energy, cheap water, cheap land, few restrictions on land development, and relatively cheap government, and an ever-expanding tax base, we became enchanted that government should do much more than it should.

The priorities of local government, specifically San Diego, should be public safety, (police, fire, paramedic, lifeguards), clean water, good planning rules, good zoning, promotion of easy and efficient transportation, setting the foundation for vibrant economic development, quality education and setting the foundation for community run parks and libraries.

Civil service and professional city management as concepts are now five generations old and they have created a structural deficit in the local government that is unresolvable.

San Diego, as a city municipal government, must be restructured. We probably need about 6-7,000 employees to run the city, not 10,000. That would resolve our actuarial problems.

The city must use nonprofits to provide many of the services that the city had historically provided. Balboa Park, Mission Bay Park and neighborhood parks and neighborhood libraries are excellent candidates for this “nonprofitization” of city services.

The city would provide the base funding and capital improvements and the community based foundations or nonprofits would operate these public assets on behalf of the benefitting communities’ members. The city would then oversee the administration of these contracts.

(Little Italy is an excellent example of how community based assessment dollars coupled with public funds and managed on a non-profit basis can provide a whole array of neighborhood services that the city never did, nor could, provide.)

However, such a restructuring would take political leadership and having City Council members willing to represent constituent short-term and long-term needs — not those of public employee unions.

This scenario and model of new city management is long overdue.

Zoning laws should also be altered to provide for greatly increased densities around transit stops, regardless of community opposition.

Where is the boundary between what a neighborhood district like a maintenance assessment district provides and what a city provides?

The level of service, (outside of police and fire and trash pickup) that the city provides is declining and is pretty dismal. Cities normally deal with cleanliness issues from curb to curb. But people don’t walk in the middle of the street, they walk on sidewalks, and the realm of space between curb and property line is the responsibility of the property owner.

The maintenance assessment district, or what I call the community benefit district, is the legislative mechanism that allows benefitting property/business/residential owners to generate funds independent of the general fund and control them to benefit their specific community. I don’t care where you are in the country, these special benefit districts are going to be the only way we will maintain our neighborhoods and business districts in the future.

 What about poor neighborhoods? Who will provide the leadership and resources to ensure they have things like parks, libraries, and nice places to raise families?

I think that statement is implying that poor neighborhoods do not have any disposable income. The assessments that would be levied on independent parcels and passed through to renters would rarely be greater than a dollar a day.

Regarding leadership, leadership exists at all income levels. This is demonstrated through PTAs, little league and Pop Warner teams, soccer teams, school clubs, etc. The wealth of a community does not diminish its potential for leadership. In fact, I have found poorer communities more willing to create benefit districts because they know the value of money and normally get the bottom rung of city services, particularly schools. They also seem to be far more attuned to neighborhood improvement because it directly affects the lives of their children.

This is a new way to run cities and it decentralizes power and resources directly to the people that need them.

What decision will you be paying attention to the most in the coming year and who will be making it?

1)  The vote on the state constitutional convention which will be on the June ballot. The people of California will be making that decision. Since state and local government are so broken, I think that a major overhaul and restructuring is in order.

2)  I will also be looking at the growth of the green industry, in particular related to solar, wind and tidal energy in that State of California. That decision would be made by the PUC or the state legislature.  Finally, I will be looking at how much the Legislature and governor promote and underwrite the system of new desalination plants from San Francisco to San Diego.

Who is the most promising leader in San Diego these days and what do you think he or she might do in 2010?

I do not see anyone on the horizon providing ANY promising leadership at this point. Until someone figures out how to restructure local government and the state budget, things will remain dismal.

What else are you looking forward to in 2010?

Expanding my business into Chicago and the East Coast. I want to aggressively expand New City America into the premier company that comes up with ideas for financing improvements in cities, communities and business districts nationwide. I have very little competition in this field.

I will be paying attention to, most:

The health of my family;

The structural dysfunction of the state;

The unemployment rate locally, statewide and nationwide;

The stabilization of the local housing market;

The continued growth of Little Italy as a national model

The long-term plans for San Diego and the region.

Here was Li Mandri’s ranking of the major projects I listed:

1) An Expanded Mass Transit System: SANDAG would have to grow a brain first and demonstrate that they knew how to plan and operate a popular mass transit system.

2) A Different Airport Infrastructure: After you abolished the Airport Authority

3) A New Wastewater Recycling System: As long as purple pipe could run to Downtown and run south on 805, east on 52 and dump into upstream of the San Diego River near the Mission Dam.  This would create 30 million gallons of new water flow to the entire urban San Diego River basin.

4) A New Stadium: Only if it is Downtown next to Petco Park or at the Sports Arena site.

5) A New City Hall: I don’t think we need one new City Hall. I think that City Hall should be spread out. It should be accomplished by purchasing and retrofitting many Class B historic buildings running along Broadway including, but not limited to: The California Theatre, the old Bank of America Building, the Old Security Pacific Bank Building, the Lions Building, the Spreckles Theatre and the old Courthouse.

6) An Expanded Convention Center

A New Central Library: Not at all

A Performing Arts Center: Not at all, unless they used the Balboa Theatre and took down that God awful Sam Goody building that blocks the Balboa Theatre from Horton Plaza.

Li Mandri’s ranking of civic worries — most worrisome at the top:

  • Municipal budget shortfalls and lack of leadership on how to deal with it
  • Unemployment and the destruction of families in the process
  • Lack of local water sources, need for more desalination plants in the county
  • Self sufficiency in energy production locally
  • Financing for small business and housing development
  • Backward decisions of San Diego City Council
  • Infrastructure decay
  • Mass transit shortcomings
  • Homelessness
  • Poor leadership of Downtown Partnership
  • Water pollution
  • Local ecological damage

— SCOTT LEWIS

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