What exactly did the voters of San Diego have in mind three years ago -- just four months after the catastrophic Cedar fire -- when they refused to increase taxes to pay for better firefighting?
Well, more than 61% of those who voted on that citywide measure did want to raise those taxes, but state law required a two-thirds majority.
Among those who voted no, many may have simply been backing away from a ballot heavy with spending proposals, including bonds and tax-hike pitches at the local and state levels, at a time when San Diego was already facing a growing controversy over payouts owed by its pension program.
Others -- including San Diego's mayor at the time -- said that the measure would handcuff the City Council by restricting its control over how to spend the new money.
Whatever their reasons, that vote saved tourists millions.
Knowing how hard it would be to boost other taxes, the backers of Measure C in 2004 had set their sights on San Diego's transit-occupancy taxes -- fees paid by hotel guests, not locals.
This was a potentially ripe source: Tourism brought more than $7.8 billion in direct spending last year to San Diego, ranking it behind only manufacturing and the military among county industries. Moreover, fire-protection boosters had made a compromise with the area's Lodging Industry Assn.: In bumping lodging taxes from 10.5% to 13%, the measure would have passed an added $8 million to the city Fire Department, $3 million to the police and $7 million to the tourism-boosting programs.
Plenty of cities have higher hotel taxes -- San Francisco and Los Angeles are at 14% and Anaheim's is 15% -- and many have used those taxes to bankroll civic projects, like new ballparks. Yet in San Diego the idea didn't fly.
Who said no? Then-Mayor Dick Murphy didn't want to give up power over where to spend money. Another opponent was Douglas Manchester, a developer whose Manchester Financial Group owns the Grand Hyatt San Diego and the San Diego Marriott Hotel and Marina. Also, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the California Republican Assembly's Independent Expenditure Committee spent more than $73,000 on radio ads and mailings against the measure in the closing weeks of the campaign. "It's difficult to get a two-thirds vote for anything," said Sal Giametta, vice president of public affairs for the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. Had there been "a more unified endorsement" from city leaders, Giametta said, "that could have pushed it over the top."
On that same election day -- March 2, 2004 -- voters elsewhere in San Diego County considered six other fire-protection-related measures, and voted down half of them. Then that November, a second effort at bumping the city hotel tax failed as well.
"We want to be good corporate citizens and have infrastructure," said Namara Mercer, executive director of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Assn., which backed the March 2004 measure and opposed the second effort. "But at the same time," Mercer said Wednesday, "we want to make sure there's enough in there to adequately market the city."
When the flames returned this week and broke many of the devastation records set in 2003, the arguments began over where the city and other agencies had done enough after the flames of 2003.
"The city, county, state and federal government have all done a world-class job in combating these fires," said Ron Nehring, former San Diego County GOP chairman and current California GOP chairman, in an e-mail from his eastern San Diego County home. "Many of the lessons of the Cedar fire, during which most of my neighborhood burned to the ground, have been applied," he said, citing evacuation procedures, the reverse-911 call system and other measures.
As for the hotel tax, local leaders and lodging-industry officials have been working for months on a plan that could add a 2% assessment to city hotel rates in January, with revenue earmarked for tourism promotion.
So if you've stayed in a San Diego hotel room in the last three years at the 10.5% hotel-tax rate that still applies, you can feel grateful, or guilty, or aggrieved, as you see fit, for not having paid more. And you can try to imagine how the thousands of San Diego evacuees must feel as they flood into that area's hotels.
Instead of that fire-protection and police spending, for every $150 hotel room those evacuees occupy, they're getting $3.75 off.