San Diego Convention Center
The San Diego Convention Center viewed from the waterfront. Courtesy of the city

The San Diego City Council voted 5-4 Monday to place an initiative on the 2020 primary ballot that would raise hotel taxes to fund a convention center expansion, homeless services and infrastructure improvements.

The tax increase proposed by San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer would raise the city’s transient occupancy tax from 10.5 percent to as high as 15.75 percent in certain areas of the city, which would reap an estimated $5.9 billion over 42 years from the hike.

The city attorney’s office still needs to draft the initiative, which is expected to be presented to the council for approval this fall.

The funding would allow the city to purchase a parcel of land adjacent to the convention center that is currently owned by Fifth Avenue Landing. Once it purchases the land, the city would expand the convention center by roughly 400,000 square feet, from roughly 800,000 square feet to about 1.2 million square feet.

The land cost is expected to be roughly $30 million, part of an estimated allocation of $3.5 billion for the purchase and convention center upkeep and marketing. Roughly $1.8 billion of the initiative’s remaining revenue would fund the city’s homeless services and shelters, while $551 million would be allocated for repairs to the city’s network of roads.

The council voted to waive a rule added to the city charter via 2016’s Measure L, which stated that citizens’ initiatives must be put on the ballot during a November election rather than a primary election, when turnout is generally lower. The City Council has the power to circumvent that mandate, however, leading to another major vote on one of Faulconer’s signature issues.

“I’m not sure how many times I’ve voted on the convention center expansion now, but it’s got to be at least a couple dozen,” said City Councilman Mark Kersey, who voted in favor. “Hopefully this will be among the last times.”

Faulconer aimed to get a similar imitative on the November 2018 ballot, but that effort suffered a major blow in August when the city clerk’s office determined that it fell short of the minimum number of required valid signatures.

Faulconer then pivoted to an 11th-hour plan of proposing that the City Council waive its rules that govern the ballot initiative process to foist the proposal onto the ballot anyway. That plan also failed, but the measure easily qualified for either 2020 ballot.

The plan to expand the convention center has been further complicated by Fifth Avenue Landing’s interest in building a hotel on the site if the city’s plan flounders.

The city had an agreement with Fifth Avenue Landing in August to begin making payments on the land purchase, contingent upon the initiative’s placement on the 2018 ballot. The city stopped making those payments last month, leading Fifth Avenue Landing to proceed with the hotel plan.

The Port of San Diego, which oversees the land the convention center and Fifth Avenue Landing sit on, is scheduled to discuss and vote on the hotel proposal next month. It remains unclear how the city and Fifth Avenue Landing would proceed if the initiative passes and the hotel proposal is approved by the port and the California Coastal Commission.

City Council President Georgette Gomez voted against waiving the council’s rules in August to put the measure on the ballot but broke with most of her Democratic allies on the technically nonpartisan council to vote in favor of putting it before voters on the March 2020 state primary ballot.

“Early on when I was elected unanimously to lead the council, I laid out a work plan and within that work plan, I spelled out some priorities,” Gomez said. “And those priorities, at the end of the day, it includes addressing poverty in our city. … Within that, that leads to having more resources to address those issues and really push policy that will get to creating a San Diego that we all want to be a part of.”

Fellow Democratic City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell also joined Gomez, Kersey and Republican City Council members Scott Sherman and Chris Cate to vote in favor of putting the initiative on the March ballot.

Opponents of the vote, including the NAACP of San Diego County and the League of Women Voters of San Diego, argued that there is little urgency to do so, even if it is convenient for the city. They also argued the city is circumventing the democratic process and ignoring the will of the 66 percent of voters who approved Measure L.

“This is an extremely important decision, and the voters said make the most important decisions when the most people vote,” said City Councilman Chris Ward. “If we go down this path, Measure L effectively ceases to function at all and I’m not comfortable with my vote today by taking us there.”

Alliance San Diego framed the vote as Faulconer attempting to rectify his previous missteps by burying the initiative on a ballot that will likely see lower turnout.

“Democracy works best when the most people participate,” said Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego.

Ward and City Council members Barbara Bry, Monica Montgomery and Vivian Moreno — all Democrats — voted against circumventing Measure L.

The initiative will need a two-thirds majority to pass.

City News Service