Tyranny of Choice
The Terms of the Deals

by Carolyn Chase

  ew central library, baseball stadium, civic center, convention center expansion, port expansion, airport, transit - these are not "just" downtown issues. But, at the heart of it, they are downtown issues because the negotiating and deal making take place downtown.

All are laudable goals for any region. The questions are: How can they be achieved? Which ones rightfully need or require public partnership? What belongs in the private sector? Can we afford them all? If we can't afford them all, which ones should we choose? How much debt is affordable? Who should decide?

So people wonder: are these deals based on real need or just political connections? If mainly political deal making, who are the players? Who really benefits and who will pay? How can we sort the good from the bad? When we choose one thing, what else is lost?
These kinds of comparisons are lacking in most of the opinionating over each individual project.

Most folks would agree that if something can make it in the private sector it ought to. If it's such a good deal for the taxpayer, why isn't the private sector snapping it up? Why should the public be assuming risks that the private sector is not prepared to take? But there are some deals that only a governmental partnership can accomplish. These are what should take priority for limited resources and for the good of a tax-adverse public.

Without a plan, or plans they ignore, and caught-up in the needs of the deal makers, most city council people get little exposure to what average people equate with the public good: their own private good combined with some civic common sense and environmental responsibility. Translating this into what kind of deals should be made on the public's behalf is where it gets tricky.

There has been a general public revulsion against the Chargers stadium deal. This is not because the public is against football or even against the city being a partner to deals. The problem is the terms. This is the type of deal that folks - once they find out about it - get upset about. This translates into greater, and hopefully smarter scrutiny of other deals.

Also conspicuously missing in most of these project-oriented discussions are the environmental infrastructure items that also need funding, and absolutely require a public role: open space/watershed protection, water reclamation, and years of backlogged maintenance and infrastructure needs -by some estimates approaching $1 billion. Why don't we see any political support for these? They may not be glamorous but they are absolutely essential to the day-in and day-out requirements of every single resident - unlike many of the other higher-profile projects.

There are those in this city who believe that elected officials are not there to pursue any projects requiring new financing. If as much as one-third of the public goes for anti-tax, anti-government, and believes that there should be no new or additional taxes, and no more debt - what visions come to pass? Which ones will fade away, and then what will we be left with? What really sustains our quality of life?

These are interesting if not critical questions to apply to each project on the list. But are they applied in any serious way? Not really, because that has the tendency to stop the action downtown. But some actions should be reduced or allowed to go into the private sector. This would then free-up resources to deal with the other more mundane obligations of the city.

Baseball Stadium
Stadiums can be good facilities, and I like baseball well enough, but haven't we learned that San Diegans don't want to be the financiers of last resort for another private sports franchise in a multi-million dollar industry? Is anyone asking what happened to the Sports Arena? Baseball will not go away if the Padres can't get their private financial house in order. Baseball will still be played in volunteer leagues on public lots throughout the County. What would go away is the pressure for rising prices linked with public subsidies. Or perhaps the major leagues would decide to prove how major they are by providing additional investment in franchise cities, rather than leaving to local taxpayers.

Central Library
Who can really be against a library? Downtown needs a new library. But in the comparison of needs, does the City need a big "central" library? Does it need a $100 million monument? Aren't these separate questions?

What are the real needs of downtown residents and community members? Why should more than $35 million of TOT (Tourist Occupancy Taxes) moneys be used for this? How many tourists are coming to San Diego to go a library? How many are coming to go a beach? Shouldn't those funds more arguably go for investment in something that tourists actually care about - like reducing polluted runoff onto to local beaches? How about land purchases to support the growing ecotourism industry? Or expand the San Diego Wild Animal Park by adding native lands and species?

The region is blessed not only with a beautiful branch library system, but with many universities where the public has access to outstanding materials and resources. The Geisel (Dr. Seuss) Library at UCSD is already there, and with a healthy endowment from the private sector. You can't check out the books for free, but anyone who can hop on a bus has access for free. In this age of decentralization and networks. does it make sense to invest in a bloated center-oriented system at public expense? The internet is the library for the 21st century. Let's just provide an affordable branch to serve the needs of downtown residents, like other areas of the city and leave library monuments to the private donors.

If we're told that the City is about to run a $40 million deficit, and has run up a local infrastructure and maintenance deficit approaching a billion dollars, we need prioritize and make some hard choices.