The Volunteers of America Southwest building in San Diego / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Volunteers of America Southwest, a local charity, previously played a significant role in providing help and shelter to veterans, as well as those experiencing homelessness, mental illness and addiction. But now the charity is under criminal investigation by the Office of the Inspector General, reports Will Huntsberry. 

Last year, Huntsberry revealed allegations of potential fraud, mismanagement and misuse of public funds, by two whistleblowers, as well as San Diego County auditors. 

After Huntsberry’s story, the charity’s board and chief executive officer were ousted and officials with the Department of Veterans Affairs suspended $2 million in funding

“VOASW has been cooperating and all parties are working diligently to resolve this,” wrote a spokeswoman for Volunteers of America in a text message. 

The spokeswoman did not comment on the current state of the charity’s operations and did not make its current CEO available for an interview. 

At least one Volunteers of America Southwest facility, a large 120-bed rehabilitation center in National City that was previously funded by San Diego County, is no longer in operation. 

VA officials promised a criminal forensic audit into Volunteers of America Southwest after Huntsberry’s initial investigation. Huntsberry sent a Freedom of Information Act request for the audit but did not receive it. He has appealed the decision. 

Read the full story here.

SDG&E Proposes 9 percent Rate Hike Come 2024

Utility poles line in Mission Hills / Photo by Dustin Michelson

San Diego Gas and Electric plans to raise gas and electric bills by almost 9 percent beginning in 2024 if state regulators OK a proposed four-year spending plan submitted this week by the utility. 

That means a typical residential customer (which SDG&E defines as a user of 400 kwh hours of electricity and 24 therms of gas per month) would see their utility bills jump around $18 per month, according to the utility. 

“We know our customers may not take much comfort in this,” Scott Crider, senior vice president of external affairs at SDG&E, told Voice of San Diego Tuesday. “We recognize with all the inflationary pressure with higher gas prices, food and housing, there’s never a good time to ask for a rate increase.”

Investor-owned utilities in California have to submit justification for raising rates on customers to the state Public Utilities Commission in what’s called a General Rate Case filing. It’s basically SDG&E’s forecast on what it will cost to run its business largely for infrastructure and maintaining the system, said Jamie York, who leads the work on these filings. The 2024-2027 plan shows SDG&E wants to spend $3.02 billion in 2024. That’s almost 19 percent more than it planned to spend in 2023. 

Crider said the spending is focused largely in three areas: powering a transition to clean energies, like building batteries and electric vehicle charging infrastructure; fixing gas lines; and protecting and preventing infrastructure from starting wildfires, including burying more power lines underground which is one of the costliest wildfire measure utilities can undertake.  

How much the utility might spend in 2025 and years after would be proposed later after factoring in inflation. The CPUC has 18 months to review SDG&E’s spending plan.

The utility also wants to boost its cybersecurity budget, citing recent cyber attacks by Russia on Ukraine and U.S. organizations and industries. And SDG&E wants to spend more on developing hydrogen as a potential renewable energy resource.

Energy bills spiked dramatically in January, about 11 percent systemwide. So the extra spending isn’t welcome news for many. More than 25 percent of SDG&E’s residential customers owe money on their energy bills, according to the Union-Tribune. 

Craig Rose, a former Union-Tribune reporter turned advocate for the city of San Diego to discard SDG&E and form a public utility, said these rate increases “make the case for public power.” 

“How much better a case do we need for revoking the franchise (with SDG&E) than these constant rate increases,” Rose said.

Disclosure: Mitch Mitchell, senior vice president of diversity and community partnerships for Sempra, sits on Voice of San Diego’s board of directors.

Mayor Releases Revised Budget

Mayor Todd Gloria released his revised budget proposal on Tuesday following City Council budget hearings and community input.

Here are some of the changes Gloria penciled in with the help of projected increases in tax revenues and an uptick in American Rescue Plan Act funds that had previously gone unspent:

  • $547,000 and three new positions for the City Attorney’s Office to back a unit focused on placing homeless residents who are unable to care for themselves in treatment and housing. That’s $47,000 more than requested by City Councilmembers Marni von Wilpert and Jen Campbell for this purpose.
  • $331,000 to back the hiring of the city’s first chief behavioral health officer to aid city paramedics serve residents with mental health needs.
  • $200,000 for a so-called Safe Camping Pilot Program for vulnerable homeless seniors that comes with case management and services “in partnership with private resources and the County of San Diego.” Advocates have been urging the city to take this approach for months and have been exploring potential locations. The Housing Commission recently said it’s looking into the concept as well.
  • $5.4 million to lease and improve more properties to “expand congregate and non-congregate shelter” for homeless residents.
  • $4.1 million for increased police overtime.
  • $1.5 million and 16 full-time equivalent positions to back a second shift of public restroom and trash collection in city parks plus $388,000 for security at park and restroom facilities. We’ve written extensively about the city’s public restroom challenges.
  • $725,000 to have a consultant produce an analysis of the city’s downtown office needs, continuing an effort that is already underway as the city also weighs its future at 101 Ash St. and Civic Center Plaza.
  • $500,000 to hire a consultant to help the city with Sports Arena related development and lease negotiations.
  • $528,000 to hire five lifeguard sergeants to “support the Boating Safety Unit and staff Northern district nighttime operations.”

In Other News 

  • A planned $950 million sewage recycling project in East County is now in doubt after the city of San Diego backed away from a pledge to supply $35 million to build a pipeline. (Union-Tribune)
  • The City Council on Tuesday approved a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco, including menthol, starting in January. (City News Service)
  • The San Diego City Council took a crucial vote Tuesday to approve the state Coastal Commission’s requested changes to its short-term vacation rental ordinance. Now the regulations are headed back to the Coastal Commission for final approval before they can go into effect. (NBC 7)
  • The City Council on Tuesday voted to spend another $27 million on a dialed back vision of a long-awaited downtown park East Village Green that has seen ballooning costs. (Union-Tribune)
  • The city’s new ambulance provider could be hit with more than $450,000 in fees for not meeting contract requirements. (KPBS)
  • Court was in session at the Whaley House in Old Town on Tuesday for the first time since 1871. (NBC 7) 

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how much SDG&E proposes to raise rates between 2023 and 2024. It is an almost 19 percent increase.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect Mitch Mitchell’s title. He is the senior vice president of diversity and community partnerships for Sempra.

This Morning Report was written by Will Huntsberry, Lisa Halverstadt, MacKenzie Elmer and Andrew Keatts. It was edited by Megan Wood.

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