DEL MAR — Nearly a year after voters approved a 1 percent sales tax hike, council members at an Oct. 23 special meeting committed to initially spend the extra money on utility undergrounding, downtown streetscape improvements and developing Shores Park.
The projects were approved in two unanimous votes, although funds for the latter two will not be needed immediately.
Councilman Dwight Worden made the motion to endorse undergrounding, but said authorizing the other projects “isn’t exactly the way I would do it.”
He wanted to seek public input before moving forward with them.
“The ballot measure did not approve the three projects,” he said, adding that without asking the community if those are their preferences, “we’re making the decision … without public input to firm that up.”
“And that feels a little uncomfortable to me,” Worden said. “But I feel very mixed about it because the likelihood that someone’s going to come in with another project and we’re going to say, ‘Oh that’s better than any of the big three,’ is pretty small.”
Measure Q asked voters in the November 2016 election if they supported a tax increase to help fund general city services and infrastructure projects “such as improvement of streets and sidewalks, utility undergrounding, public landscapes, improvement of community parks, trails and recreation facilities.”
Support was strong going into the election because about 70 percent of sales tax in Del Mar is paid by visitors, so residents saw it as a way for them to pay a share of city services.
It was estimated the increase could add $1.5 million to $2 million to city coffers annually. The measure passed with a little more than 66 percent of the vote, 1,732 to 871.
Throughout the public outreach process, undergrounding, streetscape and Shores were often cited as priorities for the extra money.
Earlier this year a five-member oversight committee was formed to verify Measure Q revenue is properly set aside for approved projects and expenditures are accurately tracked.
The increase went into effect in April. Total Measure Q revenue anticipated at the end of the current fiscal year, on June 30, 2018, is $2,250,000.
According to a June 2016 study, the cost to underground all remaining utility poles and wires citywide is approximately $18 million.
City Manager Scott Huth suggested coordinating the project with other utility work and street paving “to get the biggest bang for the buck for ratepayers.”
Council members will also need to address if and how to reimburse residents who already paid out-of-pocket for undergrounding and how to help those who can’t pay for laterals, which are the connections from the wires on the street to the connection boxes on individual houses, because the city legally can’t fund that cost.
Because the process is complex, council members unanimously agreed to create a team that will develop a budget, research and make a recommendation for a consultant and follow up with phasing and implementation plans.
Resident Dan Quirk, who serves on the oversight committee, said work undergrounding in the beach community near 25th Street should be able to start soon.
“That’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I think the city just has to write a check, to a certain extent, because there’s already been design work done on that.
“I think it is that easy,” he added. “I actually don’t think this project is as complicated as we’re making it out to be.”
A $4.8 million downtown streetscape project, from Ninth to 15th, is underway, with $1.3 million already allocated. Staff recommended a phasing schedule using Measure Q money to fill the funding gap over the next few years.
While developing Shores Park has been a priority since the city bought the 5.3-acre site from the Del Mar Union School District in 2008, money to move that project forward this year has already been allocated.
Councilman Dave Druker supported Worden’s proposal to seek community input before moving forward with those two projects since Measure Q money isn’t needed immediately to get them started.
“We have two choices: decide tonight, this is what we’re going to do, or get public input,” Druker said. “And I think it’s always best to get public input.”
His colleagues agreed but some said the timing was not right.
“So it’s not that we don’t want to get public feedback,” Councilwoman Ellie Haviland said. “It’s just that to get public feedback now when we won’t be able to do anything with it for six months or a year feels like we’re jumping the gun.”
“I think it’s premature,” Councilwoman Sherryl Parks said. “Is this just a political move? We don’t have any money to be spending elsewhere.
“It’s a false expectation,” she added. “It sounds like a tease.”
Before seeking public input, council agreed to create a list of criteria for future projects. Worden suggested they must be in the public interest, further community plan goals, be cost effective, not backfilling existing obligations and be capable of being accomplished in a reasonable period of time.
Druker said they should also not add any burden to the city by significantly increasing the ongoing operational and maintenance budgets.
“We took the first step and it’s good,” Worden said. “If we’re out of step with the community they’ll come down and yell at us about it and we’ll get to revisit future projects.”