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In January, a Hillcrest contractor named Martin Calderon gave the city five bicycles and related equipment worth a total of $8,800 so police could maintain a bike patrol in North Park. The officers’ former bikes had become unusable. The city, of course, wasn’t buying new ones.

It wasn’t Calderon’s first donation to the city. Earlier, he contributed his money and his time and rallied other donors to refurbish the city’s Western Division precinct, which had been flooded.

“He looked around his neighborhood, saw there were some problems and got organized. He feels compelled by the city’s receding budget to step up his contribution,” says Sara Wilensky Napoli, the CEO of the San Diego Police Foundation, which facilitated Calderon’s support.

That same sentiment brought people to Balboa Park. In September, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders stood in front of a group of foundation leaders and philanthropists and announced something jarring:

“The city simply doesn’t have the resources to provide the level of care that this magnificent park deserves.”

The volunteers behind him were there to announce they’d be forming the Balboa Park Conservancy and taking over this responsibility.

It’s no secret that a financial imbalance is suffocating the city of San Diego.

The city is set up to spend much more than it’s set up to collect. You’ve heard of the pension crisis. But that’s just the ugliest of the city’s liabilities. If, somehow, the city were able to fund the pension benefits it promised employees over the last 15 years, there remain gigantic issues right behind it.

One of the worst is the simple fact that the city has delayed maintaining streets and public buildings, leaving a massive bill the city is reluctant to calculate. And voters rebuffed Proposition D, November’s proposed sales tax hike.

However, voters have regularly approved new fees for what are basically mini-governments: associations called maintenance assessment and business improvement districts. They collect fees from property owners and businesses and use them for what increasingly look like services a city might normally provide. In Little Italy, for instance, they are trimming palm trees — a service the city is cutting back almost too far.

If you want to protect or enhance your neighborhood, you need to do it.

“I’m not the one creating the situation where the city is unable to provide the services neighborhoods need. We’re trying to deal with it constructively,” says Marco Li Mandri, head of the Little Italy Association and founder of a company named New City America. Li Mandri helps neighborhoods across the nation organize what he calls “community benefit districts.”

He’s not the only one dealing with it. In 2004, hotel owners, firefighters, police officers, arts groups and others campaigned for a 2.5 percent increase to the city’s hotel room tax. Voters rejected it.

Hoteliers, frightened by the city’s fiscal imbalance, decided to form a kind of virtual business improvement district called the Tourism Marketing District, which avoided a vote of residents and instituted its own hotel-room tax (yes, a 2 percent fee visitors pay). Now, the group — run by hoteliers — collects and distributes the same money the city couldn’t.

The San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau used to compete for city funds with other interests.

Today, it receives money from the Tourism Marketing District, and even as the city deteriorates, ConVis is thriving.

Like an Alka-Seltzer tablet in a giant glass of water, the city is dissolving. Some of the chunks, like Balboa Park, Little Italy and tourism marketing, are being rescued by donors and residents.

They realized that if you care about a service the city once provided your area, you should begin thinking about which neighbors might help you pay for it.

Just don’t knock on the city’s door. It may fall down.

A version of this piece is running in San Diego Magazine this week as part of a new partnership.

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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