The fire next time is likely to be more devastating than this time. Politically, culturally, and journalistically, San Diego appears incapable of rectifying the scandalous inadequacies that contributed so heavily to the recent inferno.
Where were the tankers? The helicopters? The fire trucks? It's significant that the state and the federal government share the blame, because San Diego is a microcosm of both. At all three levels of government, the fat is not in the fire: the corporate fat, or corporate welfare, is the fire -- at least a third of a trillion dollars of annual corporate welfare, doled out because politicians are responsive to big bucks, not small voters.
For decades in San Diego, taxpayer funds that should have gone to infrastructure and fire/police services, among many things, have been shoveled to corporate welfare schemes such as the ballpark, Qualcomm Stadium conversion, convention center, hotel and shopping center subsidies, and corporate tax breaks.
Similarly, for decades, San Diego politicians have approved real estate developments without requiring adequate fire and police protection, street and sewer systems, schools and transportation. Why? Silly boy. Escondido is a microcosm of San Diego, and "The Escondido city council is bought and paid for by developers," says June Rady, former councilmember there, who was defeated for mayor last year when developer-financed "independent expenditure committees" spent $100,000 to smear her.
"Politicians understand the power of independent-expenditure committees and know developers form them," says Rady. Politicians spend more than half their time on land-use decisions. "Developers not only want their land-use projects approved, they want taxpayer subsidies to build their projects." They get both. Money talks.
With developments mushrooming up without adequate infrastructure, is it any surprise that fire has destroyed tract homes? With the city using ancient fire equipment, is it any surprise that San Diegans stood in front of their fire-threatened residences and screamed that fire trucks were nowhere in sight?
It's a classic case of stealing from the poor to subsidize the rich. The county worries about post-fire looting, but the looting was done long before the fire. Unfortunately, voters don't elect the establishment, but the establishment, with its money, elects almost all the politicians.
"Instead of the ballpark and stadium, we should have built up stronger infrastructure in the county," says La Jolla investment banker Norman Roberts, who riles his fellow business executives by speaking for capitalism as Adam Smith conceived it, not as today's latter-day robber barons practice it. "I hope the people will do something about it."
But the people won't rise up, and fire and police protection and transportation will remain short of funds, says Jim Mills, who for ten years was president pro tem of the California Senate. With term limits, "None of the members of the city council has to look any distance into the future," he says. "Once they get elected, they are looking to get reelected once." So corporate welfare queens shovel the politicians money. The politicians either seek a higher political post or look for a job with their corporate benefactors.
It takes $1 million to get elected mayor, adds former councilmember Bruce Henderson. "Ordinary citizens do not give the money. Nobody can get funded except by special interests, and special interests won't give money to anyone who will not cater to their desires." So it appears that San Diego in March will vote between manipulatable Mayor Dick Murphy and manipulative Peter Q. Davis, the former head of the Centre City Development Corp. whom Henderson accurately labels "Mr. Corporate Welfare."
Activist Mel Shapiro points out that Centre City Development owes $100 million to the city's general fund, but the city would rather slash essential services than demand the funds.
For years, people have known that San Diego firefighters had grossly inadequate equipment. Earlier this year, Ron Saathoff, head of the San Diego City Firefighters Local 145 union, posted on his website: "City management has been using a variety of mechanisms to 'balance' the city budget. Cutbacks of approved budget items to provide carryover to the next fiscal year, deferral of maintenance, reducing or eliminating equipment purchases, to name a few. Deferred maintenance citywide is now estimated to exceed $100 million."
Firefighters must use equipment that is more than 20 years old, including equipment that was only intended for training, not front-line service, Saathoff complained. "We actually reached a point where if one more apparatus had gone down, we would have had no replacement or reserve vehicles for the crew to operate from," he wrote.
Saathoff is one of San Diego's most politically savvy power brokers. But what has he done? As a member of the Chargers task force, he voted in favor of the city subsidizing another stadium for the Chargers. The committee disingenuously made it sound as if it would not nick taxpayers. Previously, Saathoff's union had backed the ballpark giveaway and convention center subsidies.
As a member of the San Diego City Employees' Retirement Systems Board of Administration, he voted in favor of a deal in which the city would underfund pensions and raise benefits. He also supported a bill that cut him in on fat pensions as if he were a city employee. In recent decades, corporations begging for welfare or trade protectionism have used labor unions as stalking horses. That way, both purportedly pro-business Republicans and purportedly pro-union Democrats are bought off.
But Saathoff isn't alone. The San Diego County Taxpayers Association pounces on excessive government spending -- except when the largesse goes to fat-cat members of the association. It gives an annual Golden Fleece award for egregious misspending. Every year, it should give the award to itself. The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce complains of a massive infrastructure deficit, but it supports corporate giveaways that inhibit the closing of that deficit. The chamber should understand that under the principle of economic opportunity costs, any money spent by government in one place is money that is not spent elsewhere.
To understand the San Diego mentality, the October 9 city manager's report is instructive. It was an explanation of the then-pending plan to ask voters in March to approve a hike in the hotel tax from 10.5 percent to 13 percent. The document explained that even if all property and sales taxes, the two largest general-fund revenue sources, were dedicated only to police and fire services, "There would still be inadequate funding for the two departments."
Nonetheless, the business/labor group pushing for an increase in the tax asked for a funding increase of $7 million next year for the convention center, two convention and visitor bureaus, and other promotional programs including the Holiday Bowl and San Diego International Sports Council. In view of the fire damage, the visitor bureaus perhaps deserve a year of increased subsidies for promotion, but after that, their spending should be sliced. Ditto the convention center. The Holiday Bowl can now stand on its own feet. It is outrageous that the International Sports Council has been getting public funds.
If the measure passes, police and fire departments and infrastructure will get a significant but inadequate piece of the new tax revenues. But they won't get enough to make up for years of neglect.
The promoters of the transient-occupancy tax hike want to freeze the spending increases in place. This gives the council no flexibility to spend the money where and when it is needed, points out councilmember Donna Frye, whom Mills calls "the only idealist on the council." Although the tax revenue is needed, voters should reject the proposal, because it locks too much corporate welfare in place.
"The fire was the culmination of a whole series of bad decisions," says attorney Mike Aguirre. "There were the repeated approvals of developments without the required firefighting infrastructure, along with the diversion of money from firefighting to things like the ballpark and Convention and Visitors Bureau. It has been the triumph of greed over need. Yet I saw councilmembers donning yellow firemen's jackets and treating it like a photo op."
But the public won't be aware of this massive scam. The mainstream media -- nationally as well as locally -- have been bought off with advertising dollars from the same corporations handing loot to politicians. It's enough to make you go up in smoke.