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In the complex world of municipal finances, choices between priorities rarely become clear. Funds collected from taxpayers, fines and fees are divvied up into pots of money that supposedly can only be used for this or that.

Things like development fees can only be used to fund the development department. Water fees are supposed to be only used for water.

Some parts of the taxes collected from tourists are supposed to only be used to promote the city and its culture.

And then there’s redevelopment. The redevelopment pot is filled by property taxes that might otherwise go to fund county government, schools, special districts and other local services. They’re sequestered and used to spur growth in blighted areas. And that’s supposed to spur more property taxes, which are also sequestered and reinvested again. It goes on and on.

That is, until redevelopment is done. The point of it, of course, is to end at some point. Maybe move on to the next blighted neighborhood.

So we have a government with a pot for this and a pot for that but with residents who are frustrated. They struggle to understand why arts organizations get money when fire stations are browned out and why the city can even talk about a new football stadium while also considering cutting most recreation centers and library hours.

Residents don’t see the pots of money. They see the priorities. To them, if a luxurious city project appears well-funded but their street hasn’t been repaved in years or their library is closed on Saturdays, they don’t care about pots. To them, the city has put a service they care about lower on the priority list.

And to a certain extent, it has. City officials hate this discussion, though. They will swear up and down that, no, no way did they prioritize a colossal and over-budget pedestrian bridge downtown over maintaining fully staffed fire stations. Different pots of money.

The debate about redevelopment in San Diego, however, has ripped open a window into one of those moments where the city is discussing priorities.

VOSD’s Liam Dillon posted an article the other day about how an initial financing plan for a new stadium has been stalled. It’s kind of a big deal — after all, the city and the Chargers have not discussed an actual stadium proposal since 2004. In fact, despite all these years of talk about a stadium whether in the city of San Diego or elsewhere in the county, there actually has not been a plan on which we could focus debate.

This was going to change. Consultants were supposed to have completed a study by last March outlining how the city could fund a new stadium.

But Mayor Jerry Sanders has delayed the study and Dillon explained why, citing Darren Pudgil, the mayor’s chief spokesman:

A consultant’s study that is supposed to examine the city’s financing options remains on indefinite hold, Pudgil said, until city leaders decide how to divvy up the downtown redevelopment pot. Sanders opposes having CCDC payoff the Convention Center bonds.

“There’s no sense in having [a consultant] put something together with these issues still outstanding,” Pudgil said.

Pudgil’s talking about a proposal that emerged recently to have the downtown redevelopment pot relieve the city’s day-to-day operating fund of the $9.2 million it spends each year paying for the last expansion to the Convention Center.

The mayor explained his opposition to this to the Union Tribune (emphasis is mine):

Sanders noted that shuffling the city’s financial responsibilities was the genesis of a $2.1 billion pension deficit and current budget headaches. He said he wants to make sure that the Centre City Development Corp., the city agency in charge of downtown redevelopment, has enough cash flow to cover the repayment obligations while having the capital to move forward with other projects.

The Mayor’s Office said they’d have a comment for me on this issue by Dec. 2 but I never heard back. No matter. Put those two things together and you can see what’s happening.

Pudgil says there’s no sense in going forward with a stadium plan if the City Council is considering depriving downtown redevelopment of the “cash flow” it needs to fund said stadium. If you deprive downtown of the cash flow for these big projects, to where would the cash flow instead? To the city’s general fund, which supports the fire stations, libraries, rec centers and streets residents say they care about.

Yes, for the first time in a long time, the city’s priorities have actually come down to a single decision: Do we want to invest in a new stadium and other construction projects downtown or do we want to support services and infrastructure for the rest of the city? You can shift the burden of the convention center to downtown, freeing up money to be spent on the basic services. Or you can leave that burden with the city’s ailing general fund and still have money for things like a stadium.

I used the word “invest” there for a reason. It’s an investment in a new stadium, new Convention Center or new amenities downtown that boosters say would pay off for everyone. But like any investment it could pay off or it could be a major long-term drain. And, like any investment, it requires a short-term sacrifice.

Families deal with this sort of decision at home. If you want to buy stock in Apple, an investment you hope would help you for decades, you have to sacrifice something in the short term to do it. Now, if you are wealthy, that sacrifice might only mean you delay buying a new Jaguar. And you can probably handle it. But if you’re not so well off, and that investment means, say, you don’t fix your car, you may need to reconsider it.

Is the city of San Diego wealthy? Can it afford further investment downtown in a stadium or a new Convention Center or other big projects even if it means that fire station brownouts continue and rec centers are closed?

Right now, five City Council members, rallied by Councilman Carl DeMaio, seem ready to say no and choose city services over downtown. But the mayor says it’s short-sighted.

What do you think?

You can contact me directly at scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0527 and follow me on Twitter (it’s a blast!): twitter.com/vosdscott.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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