The Port of San Diego’s goal Thursday afternoon was simple: gather feedback from the public about how well the port’s Capital Improvement Program was working.

But all anyone wanted to talk about was the budget. Specifically, how the budget for the next five years was supposed to drop from $124 million to $6 million. A 95 percent cut.

“Did you say there is only six million dollars available for the next five years?” asked a man near the back of the room.

The moderator nodded.  “That’s the staff recommendation at this point.”

Another gentleman looked around the room, then back to the moderator.  “That’s extreme.”

For a quick background: The Capital Improvement Program is the port’s set-aside fund that is used for things like road upgrades, parks, demolition projects, and other improvements. Anyone can submit a proposal and project ideas are submitted every fall.  The Board of Port Commissioners then assigns each a priority level, gathers public feedback, and ultimately decides what will and will not be funded over the next five years with port money — although plans can always change depending on each year’s current budget.

We are entering the end of the current CIP cycle, which spans 2009 to 2013.  What is being discussed, currently, is the next one — 2014 through 2018.

The big difference between the two — which everyone in the room noticed — is the drastic drop in funding.

The 2009-2013 CIP budget was a shade over $124 million and funded 43 projects, including environmental and recreational undertakings, most of which will be completed by the end of next year.

This year, it’s hovering around $6 million — twenty times smaller than the previous budget.

The port received 69 proposals for the 2013-2018 CIP.  Sixteen of those came from the public, while the rest were put forth by the Port District’s five member cities — Chula Vista, Coronado, Imperial Beach, National City, and San Diego — as well as from the port itself.

Currently, nine of those projects are ranked as “High Priority,” five are “medium,” and 18 are “low.”  The rest are either not ranked or put off to a future date.

The list of high priority projects includes the implementation of the Chula Vista Bayfront Master Plan, the resurfacing of off-tidelands streets impacted by on-tideland terminal operations, enhancing the cruise ship terminal baggage facility, and modernizing the Crosby Street Pier.  These, along with five other proposals, may be funded at the June 7 CIP Workshop/Special Meeting to the tune of $5.5 million.  If the “medium” priority projects are included, the price jumps to $6.1 million.

But that’s as far as the port is willing to go at this point.

The mood in the room was one of confusion, with one man asking how the port, with so much revenue, could cut the budget for these types of projects.

It was around this time that Jeff McEntee, the port’s CFO/Treasurer, made an appearance.

He explained that the port has financial commitments to major maintenance operations — or upkeep — that can’t be overlooked.  Things like upgrading fire and electrical systems, fixing terminal structures, and repairing roofs fit into the major maintenance category.

“While it’s tempting to defer major maintenance,” he said, “we understand that in the long term it costs [us] money, and if left too long, it can cause safety concerns.  We’re not going to let that happen.”

“So it’s a combination,” he continued, “of having to fund major maintenance out of our operations budget coupled with, what we project will be, a slow climb out of this recession,” he said.

“I hope we’re wrong about that,” he said, meaning the recession forecast.

McEntee said that he will present his findings at the June 7 meeting, which will take place from 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. (or until conclusion) at the port pavilion.  The public is welcome to attend.

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Brad RacinoAssistant Editor and Senior Investigative Reporter

Brad Racino was the assistant editor and senior investigative reporter at inewsource. He's a big fan of transparency, whistleblowers and government agencies forgetting to redact key information from FOIA requests. Brad received his master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri...

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