January 7, 2013 by Omar Passons
Our city has a few ways to build new physical infrastructure like roads and new fire stations and libraries. The primary system for paying for these types of infrastructure is through the Capital Improvement Program, often just called “the C.I.P.” This is a very complicated process but it’s really important because it impacts the physical environment that we as citizens have for going to the park, getting our drinking water, getting to work, going for bike rides and many other aspects of our lives.Not every project is a “capital project” that goes through this process. Things like construction, purchase or major renovation of buildings, utilities and facilities make them capital projects. Things like routine maintenance, ordinary road resurfacing, and so forth are not capital projects, so they go through a different process and are funded differently. Even though it’s complicated, there are plenty of ways to think about the C.I.P. that help make it easier to deal with. I’m going to break it down into a few parts: The Money, The Buildings & The Process.
We spend lots of money on capital projects. Upgrading a sewer system isn’t cheap, neither is replacing a fire station roof (or building a new station altogether). Before we can get too far into this topic there are a couple very important things to know. One, the money isn’t in one big pot that can be spent all willy nilly like a nice shopping spree. The money is actually divided into several smaller pots that all have their own restrictions on the types and locations of projects on which they can be used.
“That seems like more bureaucratic nonsense to me,” you might be thinking. But let me explain. One of the sources of money for capital projects is Developer Impact Fees (“DIF”). When a real estate developer wants to build a shiny new shopping mall the city is allowed to make that developer pay a fee for certain impacts associated with that mall. This might be installing better traffic lights to handle more traffic or putting in additional sewer pipes to handle the restroom needs or other types of things that are related to that shopping mall. Since DIF money is for project-specific impacts, you can’t just use it anywhere in the city. Here is one basic source and a paper abstract in case you want to know more on why the limitations exist. No one would reasonably say that a new shopping mall in Mira Mesa has an impact on the traffic pattern in San Ysidro, so you can’t use the DIF from the Mira Mesa mall to fix traffic problems in San Ysidro. It’s also illegal to require developers to pay for stuff that has no connection to their projects, but that’s way beyond what I’m writing about at the moment. One other quick example is TransNet funding. A little bit of the tax we pay at the gas pump goes into this thing called TransNet, which is basically a fund for to help pay for transportation impacts. You drive on the road, you pay some gas tax, we use the gas tax to fix that road. Simple, right? Well, you can’t use the TransNet money to pay for fire stations because fire stations aren’t transportation-related. The bottom line is that even though the budget for the CIP seems really big, the money can’t just get passed around like the city was the banker on a game of Monopoly.
If you prefer explanations from actual people, here’s a really good, easy to understand one from the May 3, 2012 City Council meeting. It’s from the city employee in charge of implementing the CIP. The explanation starts at the 55 minute mark, so you can skip the beginning if you want. Angela Colton (the speaker) did a really good job explaining this stuff to a bunch of volunteers–I went to one of the sessions so I can vouch–and you’ll find it much less sleep-inducing than the topic might suggest.
The process is really about paying for major buildings and facilities that impact our daily lives. For example, in a few days I’ll post all of the buildings for the entire city that were in the CIP as of mid-2011. Of course, The CIP addresses more than just buildings, and certain Water and Wastewater facilities and storm drains and transportation projects all also get built through the CIP, but this list gives you a flavor.
There is really a year-round process of thinking about, planning for, creating and modifying the list of projects to be included in the CIP. However, the City staff generally begins in earnest around October of each year. For 2013, the Department responsible for the CIP solicited feedback from the network of Community Planning Groups across the city through the Community Planners Committee, which is a group of all the Chairpersons of the individual Community Planning Groups across the city. That feedback was a prioritization by neighbors and Planning Groups which were ultimately turned over to the City. I am still looking into what may have happened as a result of that effort. In any case, the prioritization process continues into the early part of the next calendar year and the Mayor presents a budget to the City Council by April 15th of each year. This means if you want to get involved one of the best things to do is to start contacting your local Community Planning Group and your City Council office not later than September or October for the next year.
This is, of course, a somewhat simplified explanation of how all this stuff works. The idea isn’t to make everyone an expert on every little aspect. It’s to give you enough information to get more involved if you want to. The easiest way to be heard will almost always be your Council offices, to varying degrees I have found the staff extremely responsive and pleasant to interact with about issues. To read the second part in the series, click here. Thanks for reading.