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The Prospects of Neighborhood Empowerment in San Diego

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

by Vince Vasquez

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The ongoing financial crisis at San Diego City Hall would appear to give an opportunity for neighborhoods to have greater roles in tending to the common good, but a key city policy stands in the way of any change from the status quo. Elected officials should contemplate whether our local political paradigm of centralized management is obsolete.

At issue are maintenance assessment districts (MADs), which are authorized by state law to assess fees upon benefiting property owners for enhanced landscape and median maintenance, and other services that go beyond the standard level of service provided by municipal government. By financing and managing street sweeping, to pest control, and even security services, MADs provide neighborhoods the opportunity to meet their specialized needs in a timely and efficient manner, using private contractors and volunteer muscle to restore their public spaces. From Rancho Bernardo to Otay Mesa, the usefulness of MADs has universally proven popular; in 2000 there were 37 active MADs in the City of San Diego, but today there are 48. Though some critics have derided maintenance assessment districts as civic separatists or tax-levying fiefdoms, a closer look reveals quite the opposite.

The recent propagation of MADs suggests that citizens are seeking new tools to engage the public policy process, not remove themselves from it. MADs, along with business improvement districts and town councils, provide a partnership platform for active citizens to take stewardship of their neighborhoods while providing input on pertinent matters under review at City Hall, working in tandem with public servants to create amenable outcomes. MADs also increase the democratic representation of citizens, holding regular elections for MAD leadership and open meetings for both residents and City Council representatives to be heard on important neighborhood issues. With San Diego MADs expected to bring in $11.67 million in annual levies this Fiscal Year, it’s clear that MADs are entrusted with real power and responsibilities in their community, but the City appears to now be questioning their ability to meet their own needs.

In focus is the Talmadge Maintenance Assessment District, which is contesting the City of San Diego’s demands to become the middle-man for a pending lighting project, financed with MAD dollars. With the mid-city neighborhood’s electrical lines scheduled for future undergrounding, the MAD is seeking the installation of 230 decorative “acorn style” street lamps on their streets, declining to use the standard city “cobra style” lamp which would otherwise be used. Talmadge MAD officials have already budgeted $1 million to finance the purchase and installation of the street lamps, and have worked more than four years to develop the project, but this flies in the face of new, unwritten policies at City Hall which require that all MAD capital improvement projects (CIPs) must now be managed by city officials.

Earlier this May, the City of San Diego sent a letter to the Talmadge MAD leadership identifying nine dubious reasons as to why they should not be their own manager of capital improvement projects. Some of the points made suggest some measure of hubris on part of the City, as they discount the ability of residents to manage “complicated capital projects” and even question if the community group will exist three years after the project completion. Most ludicrously, the City states that their role as manager is necessary because they believe the Talmadge MAD lacks the qualifications to provide contract oversight, while also stating that the potential for “double oversight” by the City and MAD over the street lamp project is a problem.

The truth is no state or local law prevents MADs from managing their own capital improvement projects, which they have in fact done successfully in the past. The Talmadge MAD proved its management mettle when it oversaw an earlier project to install a new traffic circle at 49th Street and Adams Avenue, obtaining necessary permits, managing contractors, and completing the project on time and on budget. Other issues, such as liability concerns, can be reasonably addressed by having them written into legal agreements with MAD contractors.

It’s important to note that city management of MAD projects will add delays and a price tag which some districts may not be able to afford; estimates from one Talmadge MAD official suggests that having the City serve as a CIP manager can add an additional 15% to 30% overhead cost to community projects. Every San Diego resident should be alarmed that the City could take $100,000 off the top from the Talmadge street lighting installation and stretch out the timeline for project management, interjecting the worst of government bureaucracy into neighborhood needs.

Luckily, the Talmadge MAD’s case has not gone unnoticed; their story was featured on local television stations, and Councilmember Todd Gloria has already offered to facilitate a meeting between MAD leaders, the Mayor’s Office, and the City Attorney. But more action must be taken to resolve an issue that is systemic in nature, not sporadic. Too often, the culture of government agencies is to usurp authority and err on the side of regulatory encroachment, rather than accommodate independent decision-making. San Diego City Hall understandably faces the same political pressures and governance issues of avoiding and mitigating risk, but it must be reminded that project management is not a core function of local government, nor is it necessary in a project that uses neighborhood dollars, not city dollars.

The San Diego City Council should consider rectifying this problem by first holding public hearings to scrutinize the management policy, as it is not only counter to the democratic ideals of our county, but it is outworn at a time of great financial strain at City Hall. With the Council possibly facing a new $100 million budget-gap to fill in future budget years, and city services already eroding in quality over the last decade, a municipal government model which delays and marks up new public works projects is one San Diego can’t afford to keep.

The leadership of the Talmadge MAD should be commended for their steadfast objection to unduly government accroachment. No MAD should be subjected to superfluous middle-management by City Hall, which adds new costs which property owners must bear. If neighborhoods are willing to go through the time-consuming process of forming a MAD and assess themselves fees every year, they should be given a choice, not a demand, to use City Hall as a project manager. Anything less is a disenfranchisement of citizens by the very government that exists to serve the public good.