Yesterday, before the Great Power Outage of 2011 wreaked havoc throughout the County and dominated the Twitterverse , the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies (SAFE) held their September Board meeting.
After watching board members shamefully lash out at San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar for announcing that, while the Fire Department will still fully comply with the obligations of their SAFE funding, the 11 year tradition of letting the County and other cities use San Diego’s fire helicopters free of charge was now over, Agenda Item 2011-28 came before the board. The action item was a request from Councilmember David Alvarez and myself to suspend the call box tax on motor vehicle registration in San Diego County for the period of one year.
A little background…
Since my colleague and I were appointed to the Board earlier this year, we have meticulously scrutinized the organizations finances and spending decisions. We found that, while the original intent of this program was a noble idea, that the advance of technology has caused the organization’s relevancy to crumble. As the cost to fund the highway call box system has declined, the Board has expanded their role and shifted funding from the intent of the original legislation (funding call boxes), to a loosely interpreted phrase “and other motorist aid”.
The rules and definitions surrounding “motorist aid” have become fuzzy, and there is no provision for equity in grant distribution. The organization began doling out money to mostly rural fire agencies for supplies including clothing and GPS Units. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, of $1.4 million in grants given out in the past six years, $917,896 has gone to the unincorporated areas. To further highlight the inequity, City of San Diego residents have paid $6.78 million in fees to the agency over the past 6 years, but during that time the agency has only awarded San Diego one motorist aid grant, totaling $13,150.
The Board’s funding priorities include approving a $4 million grant for “Motorist Aid of the Future” (which, fortunately, has failed) where cars on all roads, not just state highways, could talk to each other. Yet, when presented with the opportunity to provide motorist aid right now, the Board denies the funding.
As you can see from the numerous links, the media has been watching this board very closely over the last year. The first article about SAFE titled “SAFE Deposit” in San Diego CityBeat, prompted the San Diego County Taxpayers Association to award the board with a Golden Fleece for the wasteful, inefficient use of taxpayer dollars.
Stopping the Fee
Councilmember Alvarez and I have been talking with Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher about possible state legislation to reform SAFE, but we thought it was important to try and reform this organization from the inside before taking that route. We requested that the Board approve a temporary suspension of the fee and save San Diego County motorists $2.7 million next year while the details of the legislation were being worked out. We initially requested a one year suspension, but were open to making it a multi-year suspension if the Board supported the idea.
The other members of the Board quickly rejected that proposal. One member actually said “Before we start giving up something, I want to know if- are there areas that maybe we could expand motorist aid to, that may not be call boxes? But what other things might there be before we give this up.”
This is a fundamental flaw in logic of elected officials. The money sitting in reserves, the $2.8 million per year flowing into the organization, belongs to the taxpayers- not the Board. San Diego SAFE has enough money to fund the call box program, the original mission of the organization, for over a decade with the reserves currently in the bank.
After the meeting, Councilmember Alvarez and I agreed that reforming this organization from the inside is unlikely. The state needs to look at reforming this organization and provide clearer guidelines for equitable grant spending, caps on the amount of taxpayer money that can be stockpiled in reserves, and a new governance structure that gives all jurisdictions in the County a say in how the organization is run. We think that ultimately Assemblyman Fletcher’s legislation will look out for taxpayers, the way the SAFE Board failed to.
If you find the actions of this Board disconcerting, the Union-Tribune and I invite you to contact the Board members who voted to keep the fee. Their contact information is available here: http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2011/sep/08/call-box-agency-opts-not-suspend-fee/
We must send the message that, no matter the size of the fee, it is your money!