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SoccerCity special election at stake as City Council votes on budget

SAN DIEGO -- A City Council hearing on the budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year extended into Monday evening as around 200 members of the public staked out sides on a proposal to spend $5 million on a special election in November.

Most of the areas of disagreement regarding Mayor Kevin Faulconer's $3.6 billion spending proposal have been resolved, with extra money set to go toward fixing a chronic shortage of police officers and a restoration of most of a large cut in funding of arts programs.

What remained was deciding whether to fund a special election on a pair of questions -- whether to raise hotel room taxes to pay for expansion of the San Diego Convention Center, road repair and homeless programs, and whether to go ahead with the SoccerCity redevelopment of the Qualcomm Stadium property in Mission Valley.

Because the issue at hand was simply funding a special election for the fiscal year beginning July 1, separate hearing will be needed over the next couple of weeks to determine if the proposals will be placed on a ballot this fall.

Four of the nine council members have balked at the idea of holding a special election one year after San Diegans overwhelmingly approved a City Charter amendment meant to schedule major ballot questions in general elections -- when turnout is higher. That would be November 2018.

In speaking to the council, Faulconer said voters should get the ultimate say on "two very time-sensitive matters."

"Without the funding for the special election, the City Council will be denying voters the chance to help address three of our biggest civic challenges -- expanding and modernizing the convention center, fixing our streets and reducing homelessness," Faulconer said.

Faulconer pointed out that all the council members listed at least one of those issues as a priority, with most members listing all three.

Faulconer said construction costs for the convention center expansion project have risen through years of legal delays and would jump around $43 million more next year. He said the city would also lose the revenue from the tax increase.

"Now is the time for action, not delay. To ask San Diegans to wait on these priorities is irresponsible," Faulconer said. "And to deny the public the right to vote this year -- when it matters most -- would be unprecedented."

Besides the charter amendment that was overwhelmingly approved by voters, opponents contended that there was no reason to rush into an expensive election.

Jerry Butkiewicz, representing the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, said Faulconer's convention center proposal won't reach the two- thirds voter threshold required by the tax increase without union support.

"Make no mistake, the Labor Council wants projects like these to move forward, but they are too important for our community to not have input from a wide range of voices, and voters, that only happens in general elections," Butkiewicz said.

Organized labor wants local employees on prospective future job sites, plus training programs.

"If they're going to give up their land in Mission Valley, they may as well get a career job out of it," he said. He promised union backing of the projects if their terms are met.

On the convention center plan, nearly two-thirds of the money raised by the tax increase would fund construction, with the rest spent on road repairs and programs for San Diego's growing homelessness problem.

Faulconer estimates road repairs and homeless programs would receive $10 million each in the first year of the tax hike, money that could be bonded against to raise even more funds.

The SoccerCity developers contend that a delay could threaten their application for a Major League Soccer expansion franchise. The group led by FS Investors of La Jolla hopes to replace Qualcomm Stadium with a smaller facility for soccer and college football, along with housing, offices, commercial space and parkland.

Nick Stone, the project manager, told the council members that MLS is expected to decide on where to place expansion teams well before a November 2018 vote. He said the over 100,000 San Diegans who signed petitions for their initiative deserve to have a vote this year.