By Jim Frost
On Dec. 11, 2017, the City Council unanimously approved a half-million-dollar smoke-and-mirrors funding deal for an AIDS Memorial. It appears that the public funds will be delivered, concealed in a well-traveled, unmarked brown paper bag, since the cash won’t fit into an envelope.
The money will in effect be turned over to the control of the AIDS Memorial Task Force, a private lobbying group without any formal public oversight, to pay for their regional AIDS Memorial, occupying a significant portion of the new neighborhood Olive Street Park in Bankers Hill.
The AIDS Memorial Task Force, which coincidentally includes Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s wife Katherine as a prominent member, was set up by the mayor with the alleged purpose of locating and constructing an AIDS memorial in San Diego.
After months of looking at and rejecting several prominent, offered sites, including a waterfront site which is still available, things came to a standstill for the AIDS Memorial Task Force. A possible scenario of how this sordid affair developed begins in early 2016 when along came the proposed sale of the city-owned “Truax House,” which was the first San Diego AIDS Hospice. Then things began to get interesting.
The source of the original money for the city purchase of the Truax House and property can be traced back decades ago, when the city used “Prop 42 State Gas Tax Funds” (remember this fund?) to buy the property for “Street Improvement” purposes.
In a February 2016 backroom deal, Mayor Faulconer and then-Councilmember Todd Gloria put the Truax House up for sale as surplus city property to solve funding and lack of action by the AIDS Memorial Task Force. A condition of the sale was that somehow a portion of the “Prop 42 State Gas Tax Funds” would ultimately be used for the Task Force’s AIDS memorial at Olive Street Park. No public consultation, no public process, no transparency — nothing except a done deal.
The Truax House was sold and the proceeds duly placed into the city’s “Prop 42 Gas Tax Fund” — the first stop on the “hide the money trail.”
The Dec. 11, 2017 City Council meeting, year-end holidays, and a no-news week was an ideal time for some budgetary hocus pocus at City Hall. Nothing appears remarkable on the agenda until a closer look at Resolution Number 311466 reveals the next stop.
The resolution authorized what seemed to be routine mid-year amendments to the 2018 Capital Improvements Program Budget. The resolution passed unanimously as a “Consent Item” without discussion. Did the City Council really understand that by voting to approve the resolution they could be potentially involved in an illegal transfer of public funds from the Prop 42 State Gas Tax Fund to the control of the private AIDS Memorial Task Force?
Digging deeper on page 13 of the resolution, “Item 83 increases the budget for Street Resurfacing and Reconstruction account by $500,000.” This is all paid for out of funds from the “Prop 42 Gas Tax Fund” account, the second stop on the “hide the money trail.”
Then in the next breath, “Item 84 increases the budget for the Olive Street Park account by $500,000,” with the city’s general fund cited as the source for the money. But how to pay for this increase without creating a deficit in the general fund? This is the third stop for the money.
All is revealed in the next line, “Item 85 de-appropriate $500,000 from the Street Resurfacing and Reconstruction account,” the exact same amount by which Item 83 increased. Now transfer the $500,000 to the general fund, thus covering the deficit. This is the last stop in a rather amateurish attempt to hide the money.
The wording of Item 84 attempts to portray the $500,000 as a simple increase in funding for Olive Street Park. Until now, the AIDS Memorial Task Force, by its own account, has raised less than $45,000. That amount will be nowhere near the amount necessary to build their memorial. Given past events and the parties involved, it should be apparent that the Olive Street Park funding increase will be used by the city, directed by the AIDS Memorial Task Force, to pay for their private AIDS memorial.
On the surface with the passage of the resolution, all accounts are now square with Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the City Council and newly elected Assemblymember Gloria. However, one inconvenient question should be posed by the state of California: How can “Prop 42 State Gas Tax Funds” be used to pay for a private AIDS memorial?
Perhaps the grand jury is a bit wiser than the city and should investigate the city’s involvement in possible transfer of public funds to de facto control of the private AIDS Memorial Task Force group to pay for their AIDS memorial?
The public can ask its own questions at the special Uptown Planners Meeting on Feb. 22, at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Great Hall, 2700 Fifth Ave. from 6–9 p.m.
– James Frost is architect/planner and member of the Bankers Hill Design Committee and Bankers Hill Community group.
Editor’s Note: The City Council docket for Dec. 12, 2017 that he refers to can be found online at bit.ly/2n2iiCd].