SAN DIEGO - The City Council Monday evening approved a $3.6 billion budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year that does not include $5 million in proposed funding for a special election in November, leading Mayor Kevin Faulconer to threaten to restore the funding.
The council passed the budget on an 8-1 vote after listening to about two and a half hours of public testimony.
Most of the areas of disagreement regarding Faulconer's $3.6 billion spending proposal were previously 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 going into the hearing 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.
Councilman Chris Ward said he supports the convention center expansion project and extra money for homeless programs, but noted the requirement for the tax hike would make passage difficult.
"I fundamentally do not believe -- this is both a policy and a political question -- that we are going to be able to achieve a two-thirds threshold on the November ballot," Ward said.
"We could say we could put the question to the voters, but in San Diego we have done this time and time again, and we have just not been able to achieve a two-thirds support for voter approval (of tax increases), especially with organized opposition."
Councilwoman Barbara Bry, who chairs the panel's Budget Committee, said she looks forward to a "well-crafted" ballot measure for the convention center for the November general election next year. She also wanted to delay the SoccerCity vote.
"Determining the future of the Qualcomm site is a once-in-a-lifetime gift for San Diegans, and I want to ensure that this valuable piece of land in the heart of San Diego is utilized to the maximum benefit of our city and our region," Bry said.
Bry said the city needs to act swiftly on the plan, but with full comprehension and "informed buy-in" from the community.
Councilman Scott Sherman, who cast the dissenting vote, noted that the SoccerCity developers turned in 112,000 petition signatures in favor of their project.
"Let's make no doubt about what we are doing here today, in taking that $5 million off the table for a special election, you are directly denying people their right to vote," Sherman said.
"Our job as council members, once the public speaks, is to implement the will of the voter and not our own will."
Faulconer began the hearing by telling the council members that voters should get the ultimate say on "two very time-sensitive matters."
He stuck with his message after the council removed the funds, calling it "unprecedented step of blocking a public election," which he called short- sighted.
"I intend to use my veto authority to restore the special election funding, while still retaining the added funding for our police, so the City Council can take an up-or-down vote on these urgent ballot measures," Faulconer said.
According to City Attorney Mara Elliott, the San Diego mayor has the authority to veto or modify a budget passed by the council within five business days -- a rare power that's not often used. The council can then override with six votes.
"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."
Opponents of the special election pointed to a City Charter amendment passed overwhelmingly last fall that places initiatives before voters in general elections, with the next one set for November next year. They also contended that there was no reason to rush.
Jerry Butkiewicz, representing the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council, agreed with Ward that Faulconer's convention center proposal wouldn't have reached 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.
After the meeting, Stone said he was disappointed but was willing to give it time and let events play out.
Faulconer released this statement following Council's vote:
“A City Council majority is supporting the unprecedented step of blocking a public election by stripping funding from the budget. This short-sighted move results in denying the public a vote and getting nothing accomplished for our city.
The City Council majority wants to make San Diegans wait for more road repairs, wait to address the homeless crisis, wait to bring back tourism jobs, and jeopardize a chance to get a major league sports franchise.
I intend to use my veto authority to restore the special election funding, while still retaining the added funding for our police, so the City Council can take an up-or-down vote on these urgent ballot measures.
The City Council should not ignore these time-sensitive issues – and give San Diegans the opportunity to vote this year.”