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Tuesday, Jul 15, 2014 - Last Blog on Earth | News

San Diego's frozen funding pipe

Prop. A is preventing the city from accessing millions of state water and sewer dollars

By Joshua Emerson Smith
news Illustration by Adam Vieyra

It’s no secret that San Diego needs all the help it can get when it comes to repairing aging water pipes and sewer lines. With more than a billion dollars in unmet infrastructure needs, officials have been looking under every couch cushion to keep the disrepair to a minimum.

What might seem odd, however, is that the city has ostensibly given up access to tens of millions of dollars of infrastructure grants and loans provided routinely by the state. Despite warnings from Sacramento officials, in June 2012, San Diego voters passed a ballot measure, Proposition A, that’s in direct conflict with state law.

Under Prop. A, the city is prohibited from requiring project labor agreements, or PLAs, on city-contracted construction jobs. The labor agreements are often used on long-term projects to set experience and wage requirements. The city has never required a PLA, but supporters of the ballot initiative argued that if one were ever used, it would be costly and unfairly favor unions. The campaign mirrored similar efforts by building-industry groups across the country.

In April 2012, before San Diego voters passed Prop. A, the state Legislature passed SB 829, which cuts off funding for municipalities that prohibit PLAs. The county of San Diego and several nearby cities had also previously enacted bans.

For more than a year now, state funding for drinking- and waste-water infrastructure in San Diego has remained in limbo because of the voter-approve initiative, according to the state agency responsible for distributing the money. 

“The water board’s position is that it’s not possible for the water board to execute a loan with San Diego,” said Christopher Stevens, an engineer and supervisor with the State Water Resources Control Board.

The city has more than $67.8 million in outstanding loan applications with the state water board, according to the city's Public Utilities Department.

In the run up to the vote, supporters of Prop. A claimed the state was bluffing. Eric Christen, executive director of the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, led the charge, calling the state law a “gimmick” that would have “no impact.”

From the beginning, supporters of the ban expected the city would challenge the state in court if funds were withheld, Christen said.

“If it is something they are trying, then it would be time for the city to challenge what is clearly an unconstitutional law,” he said in an email. “That is something we have been waiting to happen should the opportunity arise.”

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has said he's willing to sue the state over the issue. But, so far, city leaders have been reluctant to wage such a legal battle.

Last month, the state approved the city's 2012 loan application for $18.7 million to replace pipes along University Avenue. However, that loan was issued by the California Department of Public Health. As of July, the state loan program for “safe drinking water” and “clean water” has been consolidated under the state water board, and as a result, San Diego shouldn’t expect future loans to be approved until the legal issue is reconciled, Stevens said.

Public Utilities Director Halla Razak downplayed concerns about securing future funding.

“It takes the state 18 to 24 months to act on an application,” she said. “We have not gotten any denials at all.”

“Our applications, we try to get them done in nine months or less,” Stevens said. “But the Legislature and governor approved this law that prevents us from doing that.”

(We've reached out to Mayor Kevin Faulconer's office for comment and will update this post when we get a response.)  

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