In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, as told by Goethe and Walt Disney, a novice nearly drowns after an enchanted broom becomes too eager to take over his chore of hauling water. Such are the risks of summoning forces you can’t control.
The lesson seems lost on Mayor Kevin Faulconer, whose efforts to carry water for SoccerCity developers and the downtown hotel industry may swamp his political future, with no old sorcerer returning to save the day.
On Monday, the city council is scheduled to consider the mayor’s plan to raise taxes on hotel stays to expand San Diego’s convention center. A week later, they will ponder placing the SoccerCity development plan on the same ballot.
Faulconer is in a big hurry. Instead of waiting for the next general election in 2018, he wants the question put to voters this November. This would seem to defy voters who just last year passed, overwhelmingly, Measure L, which requires such initiatives to stand in general elections (and not in low-turnout primaries or specials), unless the council decides to waive the law for some dire urgency.
The mayor argues that just such an imperative is upon San Diego. Construction costs are rising by $3.6 million a month, so it’s better for the increasingly pinched city budget if taxpayers build the $865 million expansion sooner than later.
Not only would costs be contained, the mayor says, but cash from bigger conventions also would start flowing more quickly. The argument rests on a forecast of certain inflation and ignores the deflation of less than a decade ago, but he expects voters to overlook this quibble.
As for SoccerCity, the mayor parrots the case made by its developer that Major League Soccer will pass by San Diego if voters don’t endorse the quick sale of the Qualcomm Stadium site for a new soccer venue. This ignores the inevitable legal hurdles and delays facing SoccerCity’s 3,028-page initiative, not to mention a competing idea from boosters of San Diego State University that could build a stadium quicker.
In any case, council members were skeptical, voting 8-1 last week to strip $5 million for the special election from the mayor’s budget. It was arguably the biggest defeat of Faulconer’s relatively young political career.
Comic-Con create a temporary shortage and send rates doubling or tripling. Expanding the center makes this “compression” even better for incumbent hoteliers.
Of course, the scheme falls apart if higher hotel taxes flow to city government, like any other tax, instead of toward exacerbating room shortages downtown.
Yet Faulconer is kicking precisely that door wide open. In an apparent bid to build political support, he attached funding for roads and the homeless to his convention center tax. This puts the whole shebang in play.
Last week an opposition group said it will write an initiative to raise hotel taxes to expand and upgrade city parks. Another advocate unveiled a poll suggesting that voters favor a homeless-only tax hike over one for a convention center by 75 percent to 19 percent.
You get the picture. Faulconer’s rush job may crumble into the sum of all fears for hoteliers: A tax targeted at their single industry without any offsetting direct benefits.
It’s also bad economic policy. If local voters, sick of general taxes on sales and property, develop a taste for industry-specific revenue grabs, there’s no telling which sector is next.
There’s yet another bit of ideological absurdity, from a Republican point of view, infecting the mayor’s proposal.
A well-funded and expert hotel developer called Fifth Avenue Landing has proposed to build a $450 million, 831-room hotel tower and 565-bed hostel on the site of Faulconer’s convention center expansion. That’s because he passed up a deal in March 2016 to acquire FAL’s lease on the land for a mere $13.8 million.
We can only guess at the mayor’s reasoning. At the time he was negotiating privately with SoccerCity for the Mission Valley site and simultaneously with the Chargers, who were gathering signatures to build a combined stadium and convention center next to Petco Park — a measure he eventually supported.
Faulconer had painted himself into a corner. If he pushed to buy out FAL, he’d be the guy who chased the Chargers from downtown San Diego.
Meanwhile, SoccerCity wanted a head start on a vacant Mission Valley, where the mayor was saying publicly he preferred the Chargers to stay. Faulconer couldn’t very well block the team downtown without stressing his Plan B with SoccerCity.
Now the mayor confronts a different set of problems. He is said to be offering FAL $40 million for the lease, although both sides deny the rumor. And FAL is suing the city for interference, noting that Faulconer has leaned on commissioners of the Port of San Diego, the presiding government entity, to reject the offending hotel project.
If Faulconer can’t negotiate a buyout, his favored expansion is dead. Any buyout is bound to cost more than the $13.8 million that taxpayers could have gotten just last year. Political embarrassment awaits either way.