Streetlight cameras in downtown San Diego / Photo by Megan Wood

Only a few weeks ago, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer proposed that the city make a major investment in its smart streetlights. His revised budget goes in the opposite direction — and will lead to a significant downsizing of the controversial program.

Instead of a $1.4 million boost, as offered in April, the mayor asked the City Council on Tuesday to consider a roughly equal cut to the Sustainability Department’s budget for the smart streetlights program.

If approved, the money for the smart streetlights in the next fiscal year will come entirely from a city parking meter fees rather than the general fund. Faulconer had initially set the next smart streetlights budget at around $2.1 million. Now, if approved as is, the program will have to survive on approximately $825,000 with funds from the Community Parking District.

The mayor’s office confirmed Wednesday that the number of active streetlight sensors in operation will be reduced, but it’s not immediately clear how many of the thousands already installed will go dark.

“City staff is still determining how the program will scale back,” Christina Chadwick, a spokeswoman for Faulconer, wrote in an email.

An independent budget analyst report released Wednesday shows that the sensors will continue to operate only within the city’s five Community Parking Districts, which include Pacific Beach, downtown and much of the urban core. The sensors will be shut down in one notable area, though: southeastern San Diego, where the program has encountered pushback.

San Diego’s Community Parking Districts are broken into five jurisdictions. / Image via the city of San Diego
San Diego’s Community Parking Districts are broken into five jurisdictions. / Image via the city of San Diego

The parking district revenues are controlled by a separate group of community representatives, but their budget still requires City Council approval. That’s significant because several weeks ago, City Council President Georgette Gómez called for permanently turning off the streetlight sensors.

What was pitched as an energy-saving project has evolved into a surveillance system that’s been primarily useful to criminal investigators. It’s also not producing the transit and mobility data that supporters promised at the outset — data, for instance, that would help public planners know where infrastructure changes are most needed and help developers create parking apps.

But the streetlights cannot be turned off without the city taking a financial hit.

The program got rolling in late 2016 with a $30 million loan from General Electric and a promise that by retrofitting the streetlights with LED lights — in addition to audio and visual sensors — the city’s energy cost savings would pay for the project.

Those savings, however, have only managed to cover the debt payments on the loan. Officials will still likely be responsible for repaying the financing of the equipment if the whole hog goes belly up.

The city could also end up owing the federal government about $2.9 million because the city paid for hundreds of LED lights and sensors with Community Development Block Grants. Those dollars are intended to help local communities overcome poverty, and the city justified its use in this context by putting the equipment in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

Complicating matters even more is the fact the company that owns San Diego’s data-collection platform was recently sold. On May 4, the Florida-based Ubicquia announced that it had purchased the underlying streetlights technology from GE Current. It came three months after a top City Hall official proposed getting a handle on growing streetlights costs by “aggressively” renegotiating the contract with GE Current, according to a memo obtained by NBC San Diego.

Chadwick said Ubicquia acquired GE Current’s contract with San Diego without any changes. “We are still planning to bring to Council an amendment to our agreement with Ubicquia in the coming months,” she wrote in an email.

Beyond bringing some financial clarity to the program, the IBA’s review of Faulconer’s revised budget Wednesday also gives a sense of how the city is trying to recoup some costs. Officials are trying to sell the sensors that were paid for with Community Development Block Grant funds back to the vendor.

Meanwhile, the city’s Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee has begun drafting a surveillance ordinance that will govern the future purchase and use of devices capable of watching and listening to the public. It’s also expected to put additional rules on who owns the data and how it can be used by outside companies.

Jesse Marx

Jesse Marx is Voice of San Diego's associate editor.

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