July 13 2011 12:00 AM

DeMaio calls for end to call-box program, but why now?

City Councilmember Carl DeMaio added a new notch to his taxpayer-watchdog belt today when he asked San Diego County's delegation to the Legislature to end the state highway emergency call-box program.

... Wait a second. Did he actually take a stand or did he just jeopardize a $1.7-million grant to update the city's fire-alert system to score a few political points?

Earlier this year, CityBeat exposed how the San Diego Service Authority for Highway Emergencies (SAFE) has continued to collect a $1 fee on motor-vehicle registrations to maintain highway call boxes even though the fee is no longer necessary. The program is fully funded, has more than $12 million in reserves, and the board now spends much more money on off-mission projects than the call boxes themselves. Freshman City Councilmembers Lorie Zapf and David Alvarez were appointed to the board this year and have blasted the board's spending practices both in meetings and the press.

“While this program may have been useful when it was created in 1986, it's time our State government realize that we have entered the 21st century,” DeMaio writes in a press release forwarded to us by another news organization.

It's time? Now? DeMaio sat on the board for two years, 2008-2010, without seeing a need to call for SAFE's elimination. In fact, we wondered about that while reporting the story and asked DeMaio's office for comment.  We thought he'd knock it out of the park, rant at length about how outrageously wasteful the agency is. Instead, he declined to respond.

What we can say about his time on the board is this: In 2010, DeMaio's campaign accepted a $100 contribution from Eddie Castoria, the executive director of TeleTran Tek Services, the private company that manages the program and overseen its growth. The donation came one month after DeMaio voted to extend firm's contract and a month before the vote on the agency's budget.

At tomorrow's SAFE meeting, the board is set to consider a $1.7 million matching grant to the city of San Diego to update the city's outdated fire-alert system, the culmination of months of pressure from Zapf and Alvarez. The council members argued that the city was not receiving a fair share of the motorist-aid grants the board was divvying out to smaller municipal fire departments.

Yet, DeMaio, who is running for mayor, waited all this time just to slam SAFE on the eve of its first big concession. We'd ask him why, but the guy wouldn't even send us a copy of his letter.


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