June 23 2015 09:38 PM

Cory Briggs: Raise TOT, put two initiatives on primary ballot

What if Cory Briggs (center)—not Jan Goldsmith (left)— has come up with a plan Mark Fabiani could live with?
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

Nearly every man who develops an idea works it up to the point where it looks impossible, and then he gets discouraged. That's not the place to become discouraged.

—Thomas Alva Edison

It's become clear that local political leaders have hit a wall in their dealings with the San Diego Chargers on a new stadium. 

Last week, Mayor Kevin Faulconer figuratively threw a flag in the NFL's direction, calling the team unwilling partners distracted by baubles to the north. Chargers point man Mark Fabiani—in a blistering email interview with 10News—disputed the call, referring to Faulconer as "remarkably unsophisticated."

The mayor's loyal bulldog, City Councilmember Scott Sherman, hit the airwaves to suggest Fabiani should be ejected from the negotiating game. To say the guy is hated in some quarters is an understatement of transcendent proportions.

OK, for the time being the Chargers are transfixed on Carson. Not much San Diego can do about that. Oh, the mayor can run to NFL honchos, as he did Monday, in a reported 45-minute phone call with Commish Roger Goodell. But let's face it: When the best idea you've come up with is a legally suspect quickie environmental-impact report for a major construction project in the heart of congested Mission Valley, what reaction was expected?

There appears one option for San Diego: that the NFL, in its infinite wisdom, decides that the Los Angeles sweepstakes are far too important to rush.

Even Fabiani has not flatly rejected the idea, calling it not likely but possible. (Fabiani categorically denied to Spin Cycle that he "has pushed the mayor to join with counterparts in St. Louis and Oakland to ask the NFL to delay its decision for a year or so," as reported in the San Diego Union-Tribune Sunday.)

Now, Spin had the delightful opportunity to visit renowned local artist James Hubbell's rebuilt compound in Julian on Sunday, and frankly the hand-wringing tribulations over San Diego's stadium woes seemed galaxies away. This icon of a designer, battling Parkinson's with his trademark smile, endured the devastation of the 2003 Cedar Fire and, with the help of devotees, reassembled his dreamscape with atavistic aplomb.

Such greatness took time and patience to restore. No staring at blackened beams and trees and yelling "Why me?" toward the heavens. Just a resolve that nature, too, is an artist that sometimes wields a wicked stroke.

San Diego could use a little of that patience. But it also needs an attainable goal. Wouldn't it be ironic if the man even more hated than Fabiani at City Hall has come up with a viable Plan B?

Cory Briggs, the activist attorney intent on keeping city leaders from steering the town into murky legal waters, thinks he may have devised a course for the city that potentially could solve not only the stadium issue but the lingering Convention Center expansion and infrastructure-backlog problems, too.

It's an idea still in flux, Briggs says, and it relies on the NFL indeed delaying its L.A. decision until 2017. But there are initiatives he believes will withstand legal scrutiny and even—imagine!—gain the support of the Chargers if 2016 is in play.

Briggs envisions two distinct ballot measures for the June primary election. The first would ask voters to raise the city's transit-occupancy tax to 15.5 percent (from its present 10.5 percent) and eliminate the legally questionable, additional 2-percent hotel-room surcharge used to bankroll the Tourism Marketing District.

This is not a new idea, but Briggs thinks the time is ripe for an increase. It is, as they say, a tax on visitors, not residents. And it would put San Diego on par with both Los Angeles and San Francisco and still below Anaheim's 17-percent lodging tax.

In its most recent lodging-tax report of 2014 of the top 150 urban centers, HVS Consulting ranked San Diego tied for 101st, alongside Orlando and Tallahassee. St. Louis topped the list at a whopping 21.97 percent.

Briggs said a clean TOT hike would not only lift the legal cloud of the TMD surcharge off the city's shoulders, but as a general tax would require only a simple majority from voters to pass.

The second ballot measure, Briggs said, would ask voters—again, with a simple majority—to authorize both a Convention Center expansion and a joint-use facility that would be shared with the Chargers at Tailgate Park just east of Petco Park, the team's preferred location.

Voters would be asked to exempt both proposals from California Environmental Quality Act requirements (save for "potentially significant impacts to be mitigated," the environmental attorney stressed). To get hoteliers on board, they would be given authority to self-assess at any rate for purposes of marketing and raising money for the Convention Center expansion.

For a period of years, Briggs added, hoteliers would receive a tax credit not to exceed 40 percent of the difference between the old TOT rate (10.5 percent) and the new 15.5 percent for all assessments that go toward the Convention Center expansion. For the joint-use proposal, the Chargers would be given a certain period of months to agree to pay 100 percent of the cost differential between building a joint-use facility and a mere Convention Center expansion.

"This would give the Chargers time to make firm financial commitments about costs, overruns, operations, maintenance, etc.," Briggs said. If the Chargers miss the deadline, the expansion moves ahead without the team.

The beauty of the idea is that no one will be thoroughly pleased, but not so put off to scotch the plan. Politicians running in June, meanwhile, will truly be asked to put their reputations on the line, considering that the additional TOT, by Briggs' estimation, could be bonded to upwards of $1.4 billion, an amount that would put a serious dent in the city's deferred maintenance woes.

Briggs acknowledges risk in the proposal (the initiatives alone would have to launch within a month), but not to taxpayers. Fabiani declined to comment publicly on the proposal, but at least he didn't blow it up. And that, these days, is progress.

Got a tip? Send it to johnl@sdcitybeat.com or follow John R. Lamb on Twitter @johnrlamb.


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