March 23 2011 10:42 AM

Your $1 vehicle registration fee was supposed to pay for call boxes. So why is it funding flying fire engines, lackeys in cell-phone costumes and a Big Brother transportation system?

State officials looking for unused pots of public money to raid, please take notice. Budget hawks itching to slash taxes and curb spending, lend us your ears.

Allow us to introduce you to an agency that continues to tax and spend even though its leaders admit it has outlived its original purpose: The San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies. The acronym, SAFE, is appropriate not only because the authority's primary task is public safety, but because the agency has locked away more than $10 million in reserves.

SD SAFE was formed 25 years ago to achieve a fairly narrow and simple mission. In 1986, state Sen. Bill Craven (R-Oceanside) passed a bill that allows local governments to tack a $1 fee on vehicle registrations. The law specifies that the money “shall be used for the implementation, maintenance and operation of a motorist aid system of call boxes” on state and county freeways and highways and unincorporated county roads. The intent was to ensure the safety of stranded motorists.

By the late 1990s, SD SAFE had installed more than 1,700 call boxes throughout the county, reaching critical mass.

Maintaining the call boxes and paying the call-center providers who serve callers requires only a fraction of the approximately $2.5-million that SD SAFE collects each year in fees. Consequently, over 25 years, SD SAFE has banked enough money that if it stopped collecting the fee today, it could fully fund the call-box service at current levels for eight years.

But the people who control the agency—Carlsbad City Councilmember Ann Kulchin and San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, chair and vice chair respectively—have no intention of maintaining that level of service. The seven-year proposed budget plan indicates that SD SAFE will remove as many as half of the call boxes by 2014.

At the same time, the budget shows they have no intention of cutting spending or suspending the tax. A clause in the 1986 law allows SD SAFE to allocate excess funds for “additional motorist aid services or support.” While the legislation was intended primarily to build call boxes, more money is now spent on secondary projects handpicked by Kulchin and Roberts.

In the 2011-2012 fiscal year, SD SAFE plans to increase spending for these off-mission projects by almost 400 percent.

“There was a time about 10 years ago, maybe a little bit more, that we thought, Maybe the thing for us to do is drive this agency out of existence,” Roberts told his fellow board members at the March 7 SD SAFE meeting. Then he snapped, “Don't smile! Because you need to know more about it.”

San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez, who was recently appointed to the SD SAFE board, admits he was one of those smirking.

“I thought, What happened to that discussion?” Alvarez tells CityBeat. “It would've led to something meaningful.”

Along with Councilmember Lorie Zapf, San Diego's other appointee, Alvarez expressed skepticism toward SD SAFE's governance. Together, Alvarez and Zapf have been the lone “no” votes on several spending measures.

Roberts, though, paints himself as a courageous visionary who's used SD SAFE to improve motorist safety over the last decade.

“A lot of years ago, it became clear that call boxes were obsolete,” Roberts explained for Zapf and Alvarez's benefit. “Not that they were without some desirable ongoing functional use, but that system in long term—if you were doing motorist aid, the call boxes were not going to be a part of it.

That's an easy conclusion to come to, but the harder conclusion is, ‘OK, so what is motorist aid going to look like?'” That's one version of history. Here's the one supported by the meeting minutes from 2001:

The SD SAFE board had voted to temporarily suspend the collection of the registration fees because it had enough in reserves to cover the next two years. Scott barnett, then executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, turned up at the March 15 meeting intending to applaud the board for suspending the tax.

Roberts addressed the board and made the case to reinstate the fee: If SD SAFE continued to collect the fee for just two more years, it would raise enough money to fund a regional helicopter-rescue program at $1 million per year for five years. He described a “flying fire truck,” and they bought it.

“At the time, I was very upset,” barnett, now a San Diego school board member, says. “I remember I thought I was actually going to put a notch in my taxpayer gun belt and eliminate this fee, which had served its purpose.”

The taxpayer group issued SD SAFE a “Golden Fleece” award for government waste, and barnett accused Roberts in an e-mail newsletter of “stabbing taxpayers in the back on the Ides of March.”

“It wasn't the issue of whether the helicopter was a good idea or not,” barnett says. “It was, just, once again, you have a tax or fee for a particular purpose and it ends up being used for a different and unrelated purpose.”

The $1 million annual funding for the helicopter program was reduced to $250,000 when SD SAFE's legal counsel said they could only pay for the portion directly linked to motorist aid. The funding has since increased to $640,000, though it still hasn't matched the $1 million Robert promised.

The helicopter-funding decision became the turning point for SD SAFE, when it moved away from the state-mandated mission and began to pursue a new course set by Roberts and Kulchin.

From her voice, one can tell that Kulchin is always smiling, even when she has to break it to Alvarez and Zapf that not all SD SAFE board members are equal. There are “olds” and “news.”

The “olds” are primarily Kulchin and Roberts, because they've each served on the board for more than 20 years, and, to lesser involvement, county Supervisor Bill horn. The “news” are the term-limited city council members who filter in and out every few years, such as Alvarez and Zapf, and Councilmembers Sherri Lightner, Tony Young, Ben Hueso, Carl DeMaio and Donna Frye before them. Currently, Coronado City Councilmember Barbara Denny and Santee City Councilmember John Minto also serve on the board.

(By law, board members collect $100 per meeting, which occur every odd numbered month. Since 2008, Roberts has banked $1,800, Kulchin $1,600 and horn $1,200. Even Alvarez and Zapf were sent $100 checks for attending the January meeting. Denny waived the fee.*)

Kulchin and Roberts control the purse strings as a two-vote majority on a three-person budget committee—a group treated to homemade lasagna at each meeting by Eddie Castoria, SD SAFE's privately contracted executive director.

Castoria used to manage the call-box program as a county employee until SD SAFE privatized the system. Castoria formed his own company, TeleTran Tek, and won the contract. SD SAFE paid his company $405,000 in 2010 and plans to increase his rate 2 percent each year until it reaches $478,000 in 2017. In addition, Castoria also picks up hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting contracts from other county SAFEs. He would not disclose the amounts he was paid, and they don't appear on his Statement of Economic Interests form.

In addition to the overall budget, the Budget Review Committee approves $400,000 every two years in grants to local public-safety agencies for equipment, such as Jaws of Life.

Alvarez and Zapf were warned by San Diego City Councilmember Sherri Lightner, a former SD SAFE board member, that most of these grants go to rural fire agencies and that the one time the city of San Diego applied for a grant—for radiation-protection equipment—it was rejected. The grant rules give the city the short shrift, Lightner tells CityBeat: A single agency is allowed to receive only $60,000 over four years, and San Diego is considered one agency, while all the backcountry fire districts are considered individuals.

“In terms of the equity, I think the city is not getting its fair share from this organization that seems to fund all these special projects in the county's unincorporated areas,” Alvarez says. “We need to get some of that money back to the city of San Diego. It's being paid for by the taxpayers of San Diego.”

But the money SD SAFE is spending on these grants is measly compared with the other projects Roberts and Kulchin have been planning.

Kulchin and Roberts launched the “Motorist Aid of the Future Initiative” (MAFI) as a way to continue SD SAFE's relevancy. In 2008, the pair attended the World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems in New York City, where they hosted a luncheon for transportation-technology firms and dangled $6 million in contracts for creative proposals to modernize motorist aid. Kulchin and Roberts harvested 13 proposals—the two are the only members of the MAFI review board—which they put on hold as soon as they got wind of a new federal project.

Now SD SAFE is dangling $4 million in front of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), with hopes of luring its $20-million “Connected Vehicle Safety Model Deployment” to San Diego. Under the so-called “IntelliDrive” proposal, 3,000 vehicles throughout San Diego County would be wired with radios that would interact with one another and roadside sensors to create a real-time model of traffic conditions. The cars would be able to inform each other about road hazards, including pot holes and erratic drivers. It's the first major leap toward a transportation system in which cars drive themselves.

SANDAG turned to SD SAFE, and its enormous reserves, for the $4 million in matching funds needed to apply for the pilot program.

“Because of our budget process, we did not see this coming, so we're not completely prepared to ramp up,” SANDAG Intelligent Transportation Systems Chief Technology Officer Samuel Johnson told the board at the March 7 meeting. SANDAG has set aside only $900,000, but the agency may pony up more funds down the line.

If San Diego doesn't get the pilot test, Castoria says the MAFI Review Board will probably start funding the MAFI proposals it already received.

The IntelliDrive project is being driven by SANDAG, Caltrans and UC Berkeley and would benefit several local business interests, including the defense contractor SAIC, Qualcomm, Kapsch Traffic Com, Denso Electronics and McCain Traffic Systems. What's unclear is how much the program would benefit “motorist aid.”

Johnson told the board that the IntelliDrive system could cut road accidents by as much as 80 percent—and that's a service to motorists. And then there's the possibility of integrating distress beacons into cars.

“The nice thing about this distress beacon is that I might not be near a call box or roadside device, but my car sends out a distress and it talks to your car. It talks to your car. It talks to your car,” Johnson told SD SAFE board members at the March meeting. “And this happens so quickly that the folks in your call center can know about the breakdown before the person even gets to the side of the road.”

Alvarez questioned the prudence of authorizing $4 million for a proposal that wasn't even in writing yet. Zapf backed him up and declared she didn't see the project as appropriate on the federal, state or local levels.

“I'm wondering why our government is spending millions of dollars on this when our roads are falling apart and our bridges and everything needs a lot of work,” Zapf said.

The funding was approved anyway, with Alvarez and Zapf as the lone dissenters.

“We're coming from a perspective of a city that's trying to save every penny, be as efficient as possible and making sure we're spending money wisely,” Alvarez tells CityBeat. “And we go into this organization that has a humongous surplus and [is] spending money on things that don't appear to be in line with the mission, with very little questioning of everything. I guess we're a little bit more sensitive.”

San Diego's solar-powered call boxes are almost omnipresent to the point of being invisible. A motorist stranded under, say, a freeway overpass may spot as many as five call boxes within a few hundred feet.

When a caller picks up the receiver, the motorist is patched into a private call center. The operator can patch the driver into AAA, forward the call to a tow company or connect the motorist to a friend, family member or employer. During certain peak hours, the operator can also offer a free tow or fuel through SANDAG's Freeway Service Patrol. (The law allows SAFE to fund the patrols, but with the exception of a one-time grant a few years ago, SAFE does not contribute to the program. Instead, the state pays $3.3 million each year, while SANDAG covers $725,000.)

The growing use of cell phones presented a problem for SD SAFE. Under the law, no money could be spent on other projects without first paying for the full implementation of a call-box system. But the decrease in call volume indicated it was time to start reducing the number of call boxes on the road by as much as half.

Calls to the system dropped from 170,000 per year in the early 1990s to 25,000 calls in 2008, according to a presentation prepared by Castoria. Of the 1,400 or so call boxes on the road in 2009, only about 240 call boxes, or 18 percent, were used more than 15 times. (In one example presented to the board, a call box near Mt. Laguna was used six times for assistance over 18 months: two for tow service, one for AAA service, one for medical service, one to report illegal aliens in the area and one from illegal aliens asking for the Border Patrol to pick them up.)

“Emilia, what should we do in the face of declining call volumes?” Castoria whimsically asked a photograph of his newborn great niece in his PowerPoint presentation.

Emilia answered in the next slide: “Duh!! Use cell phones.”

In 2007, SD SAFE launched its “Mobile Call Box” program. As Castoria spins it, cell phones become their own mobile call boxes when motorists can reach SD SAFE's call center by dialing SANDAG's 5-1-1 hotline and choosing the “roadside assistance” option. (Several of the call centers' services are irrelevant to cell-phone users, who can call family members or AAA directly.)

To bring more attention to the service, SD SAFE authorized an enormous marketing campaign starting in 2007. The contract, worth $175,000 per year, went to Berkman Communications. The media campaign included billboards, radio and TV spots, newspaper inserts and paid staffers dressed as cell phones handing out “5-1-1” air fresheners.

Consequently, of the 19,000 calls received by SD SAFE's call center in 2010, approximately a third were through 5-1-1.

At this year's first two meetings, the board voted to pay Berkman $214,000 for more of the same, plus a dynamic website that will supposedly include contests, video testimonials, social-media integration through Twitter, Facebook and 4square and live web-streaming of actual motorists receiving roadside assistance. Berkman would collect a monthly fee of $1,000 to run the site.

“We will become valid,” CEO Jack Berkman told the board. “We will have an authoritative site to give greater credibility to our program.”

Alvarez and Zapf questioned not only the credibility of the program, but also Berkman's expenses and plan. The firm's marketing budget was more than three-and-half times what it costs to fund the call center Berkman's promoting.

“To be perfectly blunt, I think this is a terrible waste of taxpayer money, I really do,” Zapf told the board after Berkman's presentation. “I think it's excessive and I don't see how it gets people to have the awareness of dialing 5-1-1 when they need roadside assistance. I can't support it…. Twitter? Really? Facebook? We're spending $1,000 a month to have daily updates.”

While the two San Diego City Council members successfully pushed Berkman to reduce his budget by $57,000, they voted against authorizing the website. Again, they were outvoted.

Kulchin arranged for a speakerphone interview with herself, Castoria and Johnson. Roberts was unavailable because of jury duty; however, his staff was made aware of the nature of this story.

We asked Kulchin to give us one good reason the state government shouldn't try to raid SD SAFE's reserves, either through legislation or withholding Freeway Service Patrol funds in order to force SAFE to contribute a share.

“That's very hypothetical,” she said. “I don't want to go there. I really don't want to go there. I think because of the way the legislation was set up, they would [find] it very difficult.”

We pointed out that as San Diego's population continues to grow, so will car ownership and, consequently, SD SAFE's surplus will also grow. We asked, why not lift the fee for a few years and cruise off the reserves?

“I think we have to be visionaries,” she says. “We can't say, ‘Because things are OK now, let's just stop.' I don't think it's the time to stop…. And I think people don't miss a dollar, David. Do you miss a dollar? What can you get for a dollar, Dave?”

Citizens can tell Kulchin what they can get for a dollar at SD SAFE's Budget Review Committee meeting. It'll meet (and eat Castoria's lasagna) from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, at TeleTran Tek Services, 9167 Chesapeake Drive. Write to and

* After publication, Coronado City Councilmember Barbara Denny informed us that she waived the statutory fee and asked us to insert that information into the story. We agreed.


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