Councilwoman Vivian Moreno / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Hundreds of the smart streetlights in San Diego that collect environmental and transportation data and help police solve crimes were financed with federal anti-poverty dollars.

The smart streetlights have been a source of contention for about a year, since Voice of San Diego and others detailed the ways in which the Police Department is accessing the cameras to help with investigations. Police leaders wrote their own rules for accessing the devices, and since then the types of crimes they’re willing to investigate with the streetlights has grown.

In October, City Council President Georgette Gómez and others called for a moratorium on smart streetlight installations until a comprehensive policy addressing privacy and data concerns could be addressed.

Last week, City Councilwoman Vivian Moreno added her voice to the criticism of how the project came together by questioning one of its funding sources.

Community Development Block Grants are issued annually by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and they’re intended for projects and services that benefit low- to moderate-income neighborhoods. Moreno asked that a future surveillance policy — which officials are working to draft — prohibit CDBG funds from being used on this type of technology.

“This is a clear case of the city using CDBG funding to simply backfill another priority,” Moreno said.

In late 2016, at the recommendation of the San Diego’s Environmental Services Department, the City Council agreed to accept a $30 million loan from General Electric with the intention of bringing down energy costs. The company had piloted a program in East Village two years prior and was looking to test out new technologies that could dim or brighten streetlights from afar while collecting anonymized data to measure things like air quality and traffic.

Officials said the loan could be paid back over 13 years with energy savings — it would practically pay for itself.

The following year, the city set aside $750,000 for the smart streetlight project. The year after that, the city set aside $5 million.

Christina Chadwick, senior press secretary for Mayor Kevin Faulconer, said the GE loan funded equipment and installation of the smart streetlights, whereas the CDBG funds were used only on equipment in low to moderate-income communities. In the end, though, the city didn’t spend all the money. Some of it was repurposed for other projects. About $3.2 million went toward the purchase of LED streetlights and sensors, she said.

Annually, CDBG dollars are broken down by categories, or high-priority goals, that include job readiness, affordable housing, homelessness and HIV/AIDs-related services. The smart streetlight equipment was placed in the infrastructure category.

“It is common to use CDBG funding to fund new infrastructure projects in CDBG-eligible areas,” Chadwick wrote in an email.

The question of who’s deserving of CDBG funding is a recurring one in San Diego that pokes its head every few years.

In 2014, Faulconer proposed that San Diego commit itself to allocating 60 percent of future CDBG funds annually for capital improvement projects. Before then, CityBeat reported, the city had to compete for the money alongside nonprofits, but Faulconer was interested in tackling an infrastructure backlog of $1 billion for things like sidewalks and streetlights.

It was permissible under federal guidelines so long as the capital improvements were made in lower-income neighborhoods and didn’t supplant funding that was otherwise available.

The distribution of CDBG funds became an issue in the special mayoral election that same year after City Councilman David Alvarez — Moreno’s former boss — suggested that three of the communities he represented should have more say in how the funding is prioritized. A political action committee supporting Faulconer then sent out a Photoshopped mailer showing Alvarez holding a wad of cash.

Moreno first questioned the use of CDBG funds for the streetlights in June 2019 and reiterated her complaint last week at the city’s public safety committee meeting. The activists calling for a citywide surveillance policy seconded her concerns.

Jean-Huy Tran, the treasurer at We the People, an advocacy group for economic, social and environmental justice, said CDBG funds should be an investment in a community that adds economic value. That’s harder to argue when the streetlights are equipped with cameras.

“Those communities are overpoliced as it is,” he said.

Moreno’s contention goes beyond the streetlights, though. She’s argued that the city has an unfortunate habit of using CDBG dollars on projects that could benefit from other sources of funding. At Monday’s City Council meeting, for instance, she highlighted two other projects totaling $575,000. One will make plumbing, wheelchair and other improvements at Rachel’s Women’s Center, which offers a drop-in day center for homeless and very low-income women. The other will replace the fire alarm system at the Joan Kroc Center, which offers transitional housing to the homeless.

In 1993, according to a city staff report, the federal government closed a large portion of the Naval Training Center at Rosecrans and Nimitz Boulevard in Point Loma. The City Council then put together a committee to help convert the area from military to civilian use, and they developed a plan showing how the needs of the homeless would be met along the way.

The improvements to the women’s center and Joan Kroc Center will complete the remaining two obligations in that homeless agreement, city staff noted. The $575,000 was being repurposed from other CDBG projects that had either withdrawn or been canceled or wound up costing less than originally expected.

Over Moreno’s objections Monday, the San Diego City Council approved both those projects and others utilizing CDBG funding. She described both projects as “great and very necessary,” but pointed to a redevelopment fund created in the wake of the Naval Training Center closure that the city should tap instead, she said. If not, she argued, the city was using CDBG as a piggybank.

“It’s unfortunate the city waited decades to pay off its obligation to homeless providers,” she said.

The final vote was 8-1. Moreno was the lone no vote.

“The CDBG funds that were reprogrammed in today’s Council action are an allowable funding source that meets a national objective for public improvements that serve the homeless population,” Chadwick said afterward.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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