You’d be forgiven for not realizing San Diego’s City Council passed next year’s budget Monday. The city is flush with new tax dollars and instead of fights over what to cut, the decisions came down to spending on park rangers and arts programs.
The only mark of discontent came from City Councilman David Alvarez, the budget’s lone no vote. Alvarez, who represents the city’s southernmost neighborhoods, complained his district didn’t get its fair share.
“I cannot in good conscience watch our incoming revenues increase and then turn around and tell the constituents of District 8 that there just isn’t any money available for projects in their neighborhood in a $1.2 BILLION budget,” Alvarez said in a press release (emphasis his). “The neighborhoods that I represent are receiving less than 2 percent of the city’s [capital improvement program] budget.”
The 2 percent number comes from an analysis of the city’s $600 million infrastructure budget and anticipated funding that Alvarez produced. It sounds grim. But it lacks a lot of context.
Tens of millions of dollars in planned street resurfacing and bond funding are excluded from the analysis because the city hasn’t allocated the money to specific projects yet. Large projects, including $98 million for a bridge repair in Mission Bay and $32 million for the proposed Convention Center expansion, skew Alvarez’s numbers.
But more fundamentally, dividing up a one-year infrastructure budget into Council districts is misleading. The district that includes Mission Bay isn’t always going to get $98 million. The district gets that money in a year when a bridge moves into a costly construction phase.
Andrea Tevlin, the city’s independent budget analyst, said breaking down the infrastructure budget without examining these kinds of yearly changes wasn’t fair.
“It’s really not,” Tevlin said. “You’ve got to look at it long term.”
Alvarez seems to be suggesting Council districts should be getting equal infrastructure funding, or something close to it. But that doesn’t take need or urgency into account. City departments don’t get funded equally because policymakers decide some things are more important than others. There’s a reason police and fire make up more than half the day-to-day budget.
The best way to prioritize infrastructure spending comes by actually assessing what needs to be fixed or built. The city has done that with streets and fire stations, and is in the process of doing so for buildings, sidewalks and parks and recreation facilities and equipment. This allows decision-makers to understand needs across the city and spend money where the biggest problems are. The street assessment, for instance, led to this handy map showing the condition of every road in the city, and tells the city which to repair. A long-awaited infrastructure plan that looks five years into the future is supposed to be revealed this summer and would help formalize the prioritization effort.
There’s no doubt that process will reveal basic needs in Alvarez’s district. People waiting more than a decade for a sidewalk outside San Ysidro High School could tell you all about it. But by suggesting all Council districts have equal infrastructure needs to make his case for spending inequities, Alvarez isn’t doing his cause many favors.