In 1986, a tiny number of Californians used those giant, bulky mobile phones that are now ridiculed in '80s-nostalgia movies. There was every reason in the world that year for the state Legislature to pass a bill allowing local governments to add $1 to vehicle-registration fees in order to pay for a system of call boxes along freeways, state highways and county roads for stranded motorists to use in emergencies.
But, as Dave Maass reported in an investigation published in the March 23 issue of CityBeat, now that cell-phone use is creeping toward 100 percent of the population, the call-box system is being downscaled and the county authorities that are charged with administering the funding and maintaining the system are sitting on huge pots of money.
San Diego's authority is SD SAFE (San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies), an agency that's run by a seven-member board of directors, which, in turn, has been largely controlled by two people—county Supervisor Ron Roberts and Carlsbad City Councilmember Ann Kulchin—for more than 20 years. Together, they make up the majority of SD SAFE's three-person Budget Review Committee.
As Maass reported, SD SAFE installed more than 1,700 call boxes throughout San Diego County by the late 1990s. Maintaining them and paying the call-center providers who serve callers requires only a fraction of the roughly $2.5-million that SD SAFE collects each year in fees. “Consequently,” Maass wrote, “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.” Meanwhile, the agency is planning to remove as many as half the existing call boxes by 2014.
SD SAFE has banked more than $10 million in its reserves. Language in the 1986 law allows these local authorities to use excess money for “additional motorist aid services of support,” and Roberts and Kulchin have taken those words and run with them.
Roberts has been praised—even in our own letters to the editor—for using the money to fund a rescue helicopter for the San Diego Fire Department. SD SAFE also doles out grants to local public-safety agencies. In addition, Roberts and Kulchin flirted with something called the Motorist Aid of the Future Initiative, in which SD SAFE would make $6 million available for private companies to modernize motorist aid. Now, at the urging of SANDAG, which oversees transportation planning locally, they're trying to get in on the federal IntelliDrive model project, under which vehicles would be wired with radios that interact with one another and roadside sensors to create a real-time model of traffic conditions. IntelliDrive requires $4 million in matching funds.
At best, Roberts and Kulchin have established themselves as powerful controllers of an auxiliary funding source for worthy public-safety projects that was nonetheless never envisioned by the original legislation. But it appears that an alarming amount of money has been handed over to cronies in the public-relations and consulting sectors, and, lately, the duo is contemplating spending millions of dollars on prestige projects whose value is highly questionable considering the dire condition of city, county and state budgets.
There are 12 state legislators whose districts cover at least part of San Diego County. We call on them to introduce a bill that reconsiders what should be done with the $1 vehicle-registration surcharge.
One option is to suspend it until county SAFE boards are close to running out of money to maintain the remaining call boxes. Another option is to reduce the fee. But putting $1 or less back in the pockets of vehicle owners every year would not be our choice. We'd favor legislation that folds SAFE's functions and excess funding into SANDAG, an agency with much greater regional representation, oversight and transportation expertise, or simply redirects at least part of the money to road repair and / or public transit, whose funding's been decimated in recent years.
More immediately, SD SAFE's Budget Review Committee will meet at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, April 14. On the agenda are reviews of “motorist aid” grant proposals and the seven-year budget plan and, more important, a public-comment period. If you care about how this fee is spent, you might consider using your allotted three minutes.
However, don't arrive hungry, because you'll be watching committee members enjoying a “working lunch” of homemade lasagna.
What do you think? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.