Advocates for low-income San Diego families are finding holes in a list of public-works projects deemed “shovel-ready” if and when a federal economic-stimulus package gets passed. The list, which includes projects ranging from basic street repairs to a $20 million “Downtown Quiet Zone,” is part of a regional snapshot, compiled by the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), of how local governments might spend their slices of the proposed $819 billion stimulus package, should any of that money trickle down to cities and counties.
Dr. Marie Best, a community organizer with the San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP), calls San Diego's list “incomplete.” Despite SDOP's ongoing demands for things like streetlights and community centers in economically depressed, high-crime areas, Best was surprised to see, among items on the SANDAG list, a $1.7-million request for streetlights in Little Italy but nothing specifically for folks living in the neighborhoods SDOP represents. And, out of 11 projects involving parks, recreation centers and libraries, nine were located north of Interstate 8; only one of the park projects on the list is located in Southeast San Diego.
“We think that beefing up the rec centers and the parks and providing more lights would certainly be of great assistance to us and to our communities,” Best said.
Since it was first released in early December, the SANDAG list has been picked apart for what it contains (Coronado, for instance, is ready to spend $350,000 on a lawn-bowling green), and, as Best and others have noted, what it doesn't contain. The overall regional wish-list, which includes highway and transit projects in addition to public-works projects, carries a $7-billion price tag—far more than San Diego County is likely to receive—with the city of San Diego's list totaling roughly $381 million.
Though it's not yet clear how much money local governments might get—if they get any at all—SDOP has been trying to find out to what extent the city's project list is open to revision and, more importantly, how that list was compiled in the first place. It's the same list that the city sent to the U.S Conference of Mayors, which has included project lists from almost 800 cities in an ongoing series of reports intended to demonstrate that local governments have job-rich projects awaiting stimulus money. Compared with some other cities' requests—for projects like youth job-training programs and public-housing overhauls—San Diego's list doesn't show any commitment to what Joseph McKellar, an organizer with SDOP, refers to as “human infrastructure.”
“We would have loved to see things like teen centers, rehab of recreation centers, street lights to make streets safer, etc., in the wish list,” McKellar said.
Job Nelson, director of intergovernmental relations for the city, emphasized that San Diego's list shouldn't be considered “earmarks.”
“Ignore the list,” Nelson said. “It's an advocacy piece to justify a need. All we were doing with that list was basically saying, ‘Here is the need that we have; we could spend this amount of money if you got it to us.'”
As for how the list was compiled, Nelson said it was culled from the city's backlog of capital-improvement projects, which is updated annually and vetted by the City Council. The capital-improvements list comprises hundreds of citywide building and infrastructure projects awaiting funding. But even that list lacks some of the items SDOP communities have been asking for. The Stockton rec center—a tiny, crumbling salmon-pink building that backs up to an unlit alley—isn't on the list, nor is the Southcrest rec center, nor a streetlight project for which Best and other members of Christ the King Catholic Church did the legwork.
Back in July—long before talk of a possible federal infusion of cash—“we decided that we would do our own research,” Best said. They mapped out 41 spots in need of lights—including the area's wide alleyways that Best said tend to attract crime.
They got in touch with SDG&E and got a traffic engineer to come out and take a look at their plan, and then they presented the information to now-City Council President Ben Hueso, whose district includes Stockton. Hueso promised that he'd allocate $165,000 in community-improvement grants for 28 lights—half in 2010 and the other half in 2011.
It was neither an immediate solution nor everything they wanted, but Best said they were pleased with the outcome. Though, why wait two years if there might be money available sooner?
“We want our $165,000 to get our lights installed,” she said. “We are not clear on how decisions will be made once the stimulus money comes to San Diego.”
“Any kind of disparities”—in the capital-improvement projects list—“come from the council in terms of how they put that thing together,” Nelson said. He said the projects that made it onto the SANDAG list were ones that are “shovel-ready,” meaning they've undergone an additional level of environmental review required by the federal government. He said that if the city ends up getting any money from the economic-stimulus package, individual City Council members can advocate for projects in their districts and make sure those projects meet the federal requirements.
Right now, local governments' best chance to benefit from the economic-stimulus package is through a proposed $1-billion enhancement to the Community Development Block Grant program—federal money that's distributed annually with the requirement that it be spent on alleviating blight and poverty. There's also a proposal to allocate $3.5 billion to local projects that focus on energy efficiency and environmental conservation. Both of these proposals are in the House of Representatives economic-stimulus bill, though not the Senate's version of the bill. The House passed its bill last week while the Senate bill's being debated this week.
If the money's available, McKellar said he hopes to see a more visionary list of projects come out of City Hall. Other cities have prioritized things like job-training and after-school programs for youth—SDOP would like to see a real focus on that.
“We need things to be fixed up; we need the area to be improved,” Best said. “We need the people who need the money to get the money. We're going to stand on our heads if necessary to get people to listen to us.”