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This post has been updated.
When City Councilman David Alvarez was running for mayor two years ago, he pledged to push for a big infrastructure bond in 2016 to repair the city’s aging and deteriorating streets, buildings and storm drains. It was the only way, he said, to address the volume of the problem.
Now that 2016 is here, Alvarez believes a bond is a bad idea – even if it weren’t already dead in the water politically. Instead, Alvarez quickly put together a proposal to dedicate future property tax dollars toward infrastructure as an alternative to City Councilman Mark Kersey’s ballot measure to spend other future revenues on repairs. The City Council is scheduled to decide Tuesday whether to put Kersey’s plan on the June ballot.
Regardless of the Council’s actions Tuesday, Alvarez’s new position shows that just about everyone in City Hall believes the city can’t take on new cash.
“We do not have the ability to spend a large amount of money like that on day one,” Alvarez said.
This is a big admission and points to a really big issue. City leaders have known that their process for fixing roads and other infrastructure has itself been broken for more than five years. If the city is incapable of spending money as quickly as the city’s infrastructure is crumbling, then it will never catch up on repairs.
There are a lot of mixed messages about what’s wrong. Kersey and Mayor Kevin Faulconer, for their part, have been saying the same thing as Alvarez for more than a year. Kersey and Faulconer argue the repair spending problems are a reason they’re promoting their ballot measure to set aside a smaller pot of existing revenue for fixes rather than go for a bond with a tax increase.
But it had been unclear whether Faulconer and Kersey were using the spending issue as an excuse for their general aversion to a tax hike. That’s because the spending problem has been going on for so long and Faulconer has repeatedly touted his efforts to improve the system.
Back in 2011, I revealed that city leaders could not figure out how to spend $100 million in repair money even though such an investment had been lacking for years.
Current and past city officials cast the blame far and wide.
It’s the bureaucracy. Awarding repair contracts has taken six to eight months. City Council approval sometimes has taken another three months. And all the design and engineering work took time, too.
It’s the decisions at the top. Five years ago, Sanders switched the departments that handled repair contracts so he could speed up the process. He touted the change as a successful way to cut red tape. But the new process took three months longer. This July, Sanders undid his switch. He touted that change as a successful way to cut red tape, too.
It’s the past. The city didn’t have many shovel-ready projects because it had never spent the money to get them ready. Officials also hadn’t assessed the condition of many facilities. Others they hadn’t examined for years.
More recently, Faulconer has attempted to tackle this problem and taken credit for successes. Here’s how he describes the city’s progress on his campaign website:
The most recent budget approved over the summer committed enough cash to hire more than 100 new employees to make repairs happen faster.
But it’s still not enough. The city’s independent budget analyst has said the public works staffers now can handle up to $350 million in projects annually, a number that’s expected to grow. But the city already has funded $560 million in capital projects a year. This means the city’s more than $100 million away from simply being able to spend all the money it has every year.
Update: Faulconer spokesman Craig Gustafson told me many of the contracting and other bureaucratic reforms the mayor has proposed are still being implemented and should continue to speed repair spending. “We’re already seeing positive results in the number of contracts being awarded,” Gustafson said.