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Sometimes you can just feel when a story has legs.
This story about the San Diego Association of Governments has legs.
Right now, one of the region’s least-known but most influential government agencies is going through a severe crisis.
The agency persuaded county voters in 2004 to extend a sales tax to pay for a bevy of transportation projects that it pledged would ease traffic congestion and expand transit options.
But SANDAG’s promises were based on its estimate of how much money it would collect from those sales taxes.
And that estimate was wrong. Very wrong.
Now, the agency is on track to collect billions less than it projected. Many of those projects pledged have no funding.
This is all excusable. SANDAG officials, led by Executive Director Gary Gallegos, did not steal the money or waste it, as far as we can tell. The agency just made some questionable assumptions about how the economy would perform. In fact, taxpayers can’t be outraged that they ended up sending less money to the government than some bean counters predicted they would.
However, this is now a scandal. Why?
Because if it were not for Andrew Keatts, on our staff, nobody would know about this. This is something SANDAG officials should have disclosed themselves.
That would be upsetting enough if it were not also for the fact that based on the same assumptions, SANDAG officials spent 2016 trying to sell the public on a new tax hike, on top of the old one, to build more transportation projects. Over and over again, they said the new tax hike, which became Measure A on the November ballot, would raise $18 billion. That money would be combined with state and federal matching dollars to pay for all of these things.
That was all a sham. The tax would have raised much less.
Before the election, Keatts uncovered the faulty projections and only now, several weeks after the election, are SANDAG officials acknowledging he was right.
Unfortunately, the window to make this right closed on Election Day. Voters were deliberately misled.
We’re still trying to understand exactly what SANDAG knew and when.
But c’mon. How could Keatts possibly be the only one who spotted this? I suspect he was not. These projections are not just important to SANDAG but to agencies across the region. How many cities were counting on money from SANDAG but will have to nix projects because they too were misled?
The assumptions were wrong and SANDAG stayed silent, letting voters make their decisions.
And for what? Again, there’s no obvious foul play they would want to hide.
The agency’s leaders could have turned this vulnerability into an opportunity to communicate with voters. Something like: People across San Diego are not paying as much sales tax as we thought they would. This has jeopardized some of the projects we thought we would be able to build. If you still want them — and an overwhelming majority of you said you did — here’s what we have to do.
They did not do that. Instead, they fell ill with what cripples a lot of local government agencies: paralysis in the face of a mistake or problem.
Local government leaders seem physically unable to admit they’ve done something wrong or made a mistake, much less turn that into an opportunity to enroll the public in helping solve its challenges.
Instead, even now that they’ve fessed up to one problem, they’re still trying not to reveal what it all means. This only makes things worse.
To wave away the local tax shortfall we revealed, SANDAG officials now will say they will make up that money from other sources. They assume they will match every dollar it gets from local taxpayers with grants from the state and federal governments.
For every $1 SANDAG puts up, it has admirably, and often, been able to attract $3 more to build things. Now it assumes it will get $3 all the time.
It never assumed that kind of match before.
But there’s more. Even getting $3 for every local dollar would still leave SANDAG billions short of what it needs. To meet its pledges to voters back in 2004, SANDAG actually needs to get more than $3 for every $1 it puts up.
That is hardly something they can assume. You might have heard there’s a new president. Yes, he has said he would like to do a massive infrastructure stimulus package, but nobody has any idea what that will look like or whether San Diego, a place in California, will benefit somehow more than it has under the new administration and the new Congress than it did under previous ones.
And finally, let’s talk again about how this is all coming to light. Last week, Ray Major, SANDAG’s chief economist, told SANDAG’s board that, “in light of recent news reports,” his staff examined their numbers and realized they were overestimating retail sales, and therefore taxes they would collect.
This is something that might have dramatic implications for each of the towns those board members represent. Not only does it concern projects their residents might be interested in but local dollars they might be expecting.
Not one of them asked a question. San Diego City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf signaled she wanted to say something but then stayed quiet when she realized they were running over the planned time for the meeting.
This seems like the kind of thing for which they could delay lunch at least few minutes.
Yes, they already punted the opportunity to do this right. But the credibility of the organization is now at stake. Someone needs to explain exactly what happened, why it was not disclosed and what will be done about it.
We will keep digging to figure out what they knew when they were telling voters how much money they could bring in and how many projects they could do.
Or, they could just tell us.
Either way, this one is not going away.