Residents fill SD city council meeting

Christopher Maher, Jim Wells County Correspondent

SAN DIEGO Facing a crowded city hall last Wednesday, the San Diego City Council heard complaints from several citizens on a decision by the council to implement the city's first-ever property tax last month.

In August, the council voted to create a city ordinance to implement the new tax, which would assess $1.25 per $100 valuation, the first property tax ever assessed by the city.

The purpose of the tax is to fund a $4 million street and drainage repair project in the city, with a requirement that at least 90 percent of the funds raised from the tax be dedicated to the project.

Following that vote, city officials said a petition signed by 10 percent of the registered voters in the city would force a bond election on the issue. After learning a petition was being circulated, the city further researched the issue and determined that the council was sole authority for issuing a property tax and a petition would not be legally binding.

Although the petition could not force a vote on the issue, a petition was signed by 369 individuals and turned into the city last week. A review of the signatures determined that 101 of those individuals did not live in the city, but 268 signatures were validated.

On Wednesday, many of those people expressed their disapproval to the council and asked that the vote be rescinded.

Ernesto Morales said taxes in Duval County are too high already, and said he could not afford another tax.

"Do you really want to be remembered as the first city council to ever put in a property tax," Morales asked the council. "Ask yourselves, 'How did all of the administrations do their job in the past without adding a tax?'"

Several residents questioned the cost of the project, and asked if a cheaper option was available.

"I might want better roads, but I don't want million dollar roads," Judith Garcia told the council.

Tomas Molina told the council he understood the need for a tax, but questioned why the rate was set at $1.25.

"I don't think there's any doubt that we need to take that next step into the real world and impose a property tax," Molina said. "But we need to take some baby steps and not start with the maximum."

Council member Ricky Munoz told those in the audience that many of their questions could have been answered if they had attended three public hearings held prior to the vote last month. Those public hearings were sparsely attended, and almost all who attended were in favor of the vote, Munoz said.

"We posted three public forums, with engineers and figures. A lot of these questions could have been answered," Munoz said. "I wish this crowd could have been there."

Some city council members seemed to add to the confusion of the crowd Wednesday.

Mayor Alonzo Lopez Jr. initially told the audience the $1.25 per $100 valuation rate was just a starting point, but that the rate could be reduced at a later time. A representative of LNV Engineering, the company managing the project for the city, said new certified values received by the city indicated a tax rate of $.67 per $100 valuation could fund the initial $4 million project, but stressed once a rate was set it would be in effect for the duration of the period to pay back the funds, currently projected at 40 years.

Council member Oscar Hughes told the crowd the cost of the project was not $4 million, and then said the $4 million was for every street in the city.

"Maybe the newspaper got it wrong," Hughes said. "It's for the whole city, not just four streets."

A representative for LNV Engineering later corrected that statement, and told the audience the initial $4 million project is for drainage improvements throughout the city and for improvements to Tovar Street south from Highway 44, and Dix, King and North Ventura avenues.

An additional $2 million phase could provide repairs to the remaining streets in the city, officials said.

Several council members told the audience that although the tax may not be popular with some, the revenue was needed to bring change to the city.

"I want to be part of an administration that is trying to do something for the community," Munoz said. "Not like past administrations that didn't do anything to fix the streets."

In related business, the council voted to advertise for a bond attorney to assist the city in obtaining the certificates of obligation necessary to fund the project.

In other business, in a 3-2 vote, the council voted to reject a request from a company to have access to a right-of-way owned by the city at the intersection of North St. James Street and West North Boulevard.

The company had requested the access to install a monitoring well to determine if there is contamination in the area from storage tanks that were located there in the past.

The council also voted to hire a new police officer and to install a four-way stop at the intersection of Seguin and St. Charles Streets.