A view of the I-5 freeway near downtown San Diego during rush hour on March 5, 2020. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who’s running for mayor of San Diego, acknowledged it might take more state legislation to get the county’s air pollution control agency to do the job he thinks it should, something he said he’d be open to sponsoring as mayor if the agency’s new board doesn’t take care of it first.

Gloria asked state auditors to look into the San Diego County Air Pollution Control District’s finances as a companion to AB 423, a law passed by Gloria last year to shake up the agency’s supervisor-dominated board. The law expands the board from six to 11 members, adding public representatives with scientific, public health and environmental justice expertise. (It would also require the addition of an at-large City Council member or the mayor, the seat for which Gloria is gunning.)

The audit uncovered “the root cause” of why the air pollution agency was, as some community members saw it, taking “a less rigorous approach to pollution control,” Gloria told Voice of San Diego. The county consistently misses federal air quality standards on harmful ground-level ozone, frequently tied to tailpipe emissions.

The agency didn’t return a request for comment.

State auditors concluded that indeed the agency isn’t charging polluters enough to cover the cost of the program that regulates them. Instead of raising fees on polluters, it’s instead using some of the vehicle registration fees it collects to cover the cost of the air pollution permitting program, the expenses for which have outpaced revenues.

That’s because the agency raised fees only twice since 2011 and far below the state-authorized limit, auditors said. It’s not illegal to use vehicle registration fees for this purpose and the agency has done so since the 1990s.

Still, auditors chastised the agency for doing little to curb emissions from mobile sources like cars, while acknowledging its primary role is to regulate “stationary sources” coming from buildings and shipyards.

State law says agencies like this are supposed to use at least a bit of their registration fees toward car emissions. But it gives agencies discretion.

Sacramento devoted all of its vehicle registration fees to curbing car emissions last year, auditors said. While others, like South Coast Air Quality Management east of Los Angeles, put almost three-quarters of what it earned from those fees toward that.

We followed up with the state auditor’s office, which confirmed lawmakers have picked on a few specific districts, mandating how some (like Sacramento and South Coast) should spend their fees. San Diego isn’t one of them.

“The law does not include a clear requirement that districts use the fees to reduce mobile emissions,” Margarita Fernandez, chief of public affairs for the state auditor’s office, confirmed. “Currently, state law does not impose specific requirements on San Diego County.”

When asked about this, Gloria said he hopes San Diego’s new expanded board would take action on what the audit revealed. But didn’t rule out endorsing a future bill targeting San Diego’s mobile emissions if elected mayor.

“San Diegans should expect we’re making the air cleaner not dirtier. And right now, it’s going in the wrong direction,” he said.

MacKenzie Elmer

San Diego Asks State to Allow Outdoor Hair Care

In response to spikes in coronavirus cases across much of California, the state on Monday required that restaurants, museums, movie theaters and other businesses close in dozens of counties unless the owners could find a way to safely serve customers outdoors. The order included hair salons and barbershops in San Diego County, which is on the state’s monitoring list, and Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested that both types of businesses should find a way to move outdoors.

The problem: The California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology quickly announced that hair salons and barbershops aren’t legally allowed to do that because they need to operate within a licensed establishment. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and City Councilman Chris Cate this week asked Newsom to temporarily amend state code or risk killing those businesses for good.

“In the city of San Diego alone, there are over 1,500 barbershops and hair salons serving our residents,” they wrote in a letter Tuesday. “Due to yesterday’s amended order from your office, all local barbershops and hair salons face imminent closure and many of these establishments will not survive a second mandatory shutdown.”

Similar action, they said, has already been taken to allow for the expansion of outdoor dining and retail in public rights of way and private parking lots.

Those who operate in defiance of the state rules could face fines, possibly the loss of their license. The Union-Tribune reports that some in the industry are considering ways to operate in the dark, including house calls.

“If we’re outside with masks and sanitation, it’s way better than home haircutting,” one salon owner told the newspaper. “If you don’t let them do it, people will sneak around.”

Jesse Marx

City, County Mulling Next Steps on Hotel Rooms for the Homeless

City and county officials are mulling their next steps following Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement this week that the state is prepared to begin doling out $600 million statewide to buy hotels to house homeless people.

Cities and counties that want the grant funding will need to submit proposals to use those funds – and use them quickly. Newsom’s office said in a Thursday release that the so-called Project Homekey program will require grant dollars to be spent by the end of the year.

This spring, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the Housing Commission revealed they were looking to acquire low-cost hotels to convert into housing for homeless San Diegans. Faulconer early on advocated for state or federal funding for this purpose.

While the initial hotels the city eyed were deemed not up to par, Faulconer spokeswoman Ashley Bailey said work has continued behind the scenes.

“We were looking into this well in advance of this funding being available and we continue to work with the Housing Commission to look for potential properties,” Bailey said.

The county, which has put up hundreds of homeless people and others suspected of having coronavirus in hotel rooms during the pandemic as part of Newsom’s more temporary Project Roomkey initiative, has been less explicit about its next steps.

County supervisors in May approved a homelessness plan for unincorporated areas of the county that cited hotel acquisitions as an option the county might pursue to provide supportive or transitional housing.

County spokesman Craig Sturak said Thursday that county officials were in the process of reviewing the state grant application.

Lisa Halverstadt

Golden State News

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