Does San Diego need a water quality tax to help with flood prevention?

Does San Diego need a water quality tax to help with flood prevention?

After several recent rainstorms, a local politician plans to revive a proposed water quality tax to pay for flood prevention and anti-pollution efforts.

San Diego Council President Sean Elo-Rivera said a tax is necessary to pay for updating the city’s outdated 20th century stormwater system.

It isn’t out of the ordinary for this type of tax. Los Angeles County voters approved a water quality tax in 2018 that is raising $285 million a year.

Exact proposed tax rates are not yet available. A previous version of the tax in 2022 (later abandoned after polls showed inadequate support) would have cost an owner of a typical single-family home about $144 a year and a typical business about $200 a year.

Q: Does San Diego need a water quality tax to help with flood prevention?

Alan Gin, University of San Diego

YES: San Diego has a huge need in terms of upgrading its stormwater infrastructure, which is old and in some cases obsolete. The current fee is far below the level in other cities. Not only is it inadequate to deal with the backload of projects, but it is also not even keeping up with current needs. The needs are likely to increase in the future as the climate becomes more volatile and there are more and more extreme events.

Bob Rauch, R.A. Rauch & Associates

NO: There is no doubt that we have infrastructure needs, but constantly adding taxes is not the solution. Cutting back on spending would be a better alternative. Homeless service providers received $2.37 billion from local governments in San Diego County between 2015 and 2022 and the problem has worsened. Water quality is one of many San Diego needs including sewage, homelessness, fentanyl, health care, housing, child care, roads and more. Stop the waste in government first.

James Hamilton, UC San Diego

NO: I agree that spending on storm drainage is a good idea. I disagree that we need to introduce a new tax to fund every legitimate function of government. Politicians love to pretend that a particular tax is being used for a specified purpose rather than defend an overall budget in terms of total dollars coming in and going out. Show me the progress on controlling labor and pension costs and then we can talk about a new tax.

Austin Neudecker, Weave Growth

NO: San Diego should upgrade its stormwater system ASAP. The funding, however, should come from the regular budget and be allocated annually. Special tax assessments should be levied sparingly or risk becoming a crutch for many problems. We consistently under-invest in preventative maintenance projects until they become acute problems. We should demand more rigor and compromise on nonessential projects from our officials.

Chris Van Gorder, Scripps Health

N/A: This is difficult. There is no question our region has not prepared and saved to maintain San Diego’s aging infrastructure. Stormwater systems should be a priority as evidenced by the impacts felt in our communities during recent storms. At the same time, the answer cannot be piecemeal tax increases. The solution is to restructure our tax code and decisions on what priorities we must fund versus what priorities we can’t afford to fund.

Jamie Moraga, Franklin Revere

NO: Imposing another tax isn’t a solution. San Diego’s stormwater issue isn’t new — administrations have essentially “kicked the can” for years. There’s no guarantee that money from this additional tax would properly address the issue or be diverted for some other purpose when stormwater repair, and improvement isn’t a priority. Instead of imposing yet another tax, current taxes and budgets should be properly used to repair, maintain, and improve the city’s stormwater infrastructure.

Norm Miller, University of San Diego

YES: Assuming the mayor’s cost figures for improvements, maintenance and repairs are accurate, not to mention underfunded and poorly done road repairs, then we do need additional local tax funding. At the same time U.S. federal taxes should be allocated to fix the border sewage flood and treatment issues, not local taxes, as this is an ongoing environmental hazard ignored for too long.

David Ely, San Diego State University

YES: Recent heavy rains have exposed the inadequacies of the existing infrastructure to protect residents from harm during floods. The city auditor’s 2018 audit presents a strong case that stormwater funding is grossly insufficient to support capital and operational needs. Repair costs grow with every year of underfunding. While the city should shift existing resources to this high priority, it seems unrealistic to expect the needed investments can be achieved without a new source of funding.

Caroline Freund, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

NO: The revenue shortfall stems from inadequate and inequitable property taxation. Assessing property values on sales prices subsidizes people for staying in their homes. Funding that subsidy means there are insufficient funds for infrastructure. Instead, new owners and young families are footing the bill for problems others created. A better approach would be to raise revenue by taxing all property at the assessed value — alternatively, levy the water tax on the long-term owners who have failed to maintain San Diego’s infrastructure.

Kelly Cunningham, San Diego Institute for Economic Research

NO: San Diego already pays, along with California, among the highest property taxes and most infrastructure expenditures in the nation (emulating Los Angeles is not good strategy). Raising yet more taxes for established operations is not productive by rewarding failure and incompetence, or increasing funding while blaming external, ephemeral conditions, such as climate change, on absent or flawed upkeep not being maintained. Unending needs and priorities for limited resources must adhere with budgeted spending of money.

Lynn Reaser, economist

YES: The city currently faces a deficit of $1.6 billion in storm control projects. Households currently pay just 95 cents per month whereas the true cost is closer to $10. The city has 19 miles of corrugated steel pipe that needs replacing. The fee is so low that it fails to cover even 10 percent of the department’s over $60 million in operational costs.

Phil Blair, Manpower

YES: There is a need for more assets to be devoted to infrastructure in many areas of San Diego. In this case I hope that research has been done to validate the need due to long term climate change issues. The supporters need to avoid it appearing as a knee jerk reaction to a few recent storms. It will be an uphill battle convincing over two-thirds of the voters to support yet another new tax.

Gary London, London Moeder Advisors

YES: As a concerned citizen I obviously want our infrastructure to be state of the art, and people not at risk. As a taxpayer, I would first ask city policymakers to explore all feasible solutions before promoting an elusive tax hike. Among the candidate solutions ought to be carve outs from other portions of the budget, directed user fees, and perhaps creative approaches that tie the new water source solutions with infrastructure upgrades.

Not participating this week:
Ray Major, SANDAG
Haney Hong, San Diego County Taxpayers Assoc.

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