Council OKs $25k for undergrounding consultant

DEL MAR — With undergrounding utility poles considered a long-term high priority among residents, council members at the Feb. 16 meeting approved a $25,000 expenditure from the general fund contingency to hire a consultant to determine the cost.

About a year ago the Finance Committee began researching the project.

Dan Quirk, chairman of the subcommittee doing the work, said he had several conversations with a variety of people, including representatives from San Diego Gas & Electric, who said the cost is based on linear feet and the number of poles.

Quirk said he counted the poles in the city — 377, give or take a few — and calculated the number of liner feet — 53,000, or about 10 miles.

Quirk said based on those numbers and using SDG&E’s figure of about $450 per linear foot, his group came up with an estimated cost of $25 million to bury all poles in the city except a few along Via de la Valle near the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

But he said the group would like to get an independent estimate.

Assistant City Manager Mark Delin said Del Mar receives funding for undergrounding from a surcharge on electric bills, however, the amount has been declining. Five years ago it was in the $80,000 range, Delin said. Now it is closer to $50,000.

“At $50,000 a year it’ll take us 550 years to underground Del Mar utilities,” he said. With inflation, “we’ll never catch up.”

A citywide project to underground utilizes considered about 15 years ago netted a similar cost.

Since then some neighborhoods and residents have taken it upon themselves to bury the poles.

That project never came to fruition because at the time the only financing mechanism was through property taxes.

Residents in an area called the Ocean View/Pines assessment district successfully buried the equipment in 2006.

One year later, residents embarked on a project to underground wires in two more sections of the city that became known as the North Hills and Sunset assessment districts.

At the time, a large majority of property owners in both areas supported the plan.

But as city staff, attorneys and engineers used an approved methodology to determine the cost, the economy began to fail. Proponents saw that as a positive, saying the weak economy lowered project costs.

Other residents, especially those on fixed incomes, began to express opposition during public hearings, saying they could no longer afford to underground.

The $10.8 million project failed to pass in a required vote.

Quirk said the Finance Committee has been researching other funding ideas, including a 1 percent sales tax increase.

Del Mar keeps 1 percent — or $1.6 million — of the current 8 percent sales tax.

If it was raised to 9 percent the city would keep the increased amount, resulting in $3.2 million, which Quirk said could “very comfortably” finance a $25 million bond at a 3 percent borrowing cost.

He said that type of funding mechanism could be popular with voters because sales tax in the city is primarily paid by visitors rather than residents.

“Now we’re not looking to gauge visitors but we do think this could be well received by the voting public,” he said.

Councilman Terry Sinnott said undergrounding all the poles in Del Mar would be a years-long project.

“The only way to tackle it is to figure what the general costs are going to be, the magnitude, what are the financing tools that you might have and then conscientiously put something in play,” he said.

“I’m for it,” Councilman Dwight Worden said. “It sounds exciting to me — expensive but exciting.”

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