Overgrown and discarded vegetation on Dartford Way near Airoso Avenue
  • Overgrown and discarded vegetation on Dartford Way near Airoso Avenue
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After 15 years of trying, residents of San Diego’s Del Cerro neighborhood may finally have a maintenance assessment district to call their own.

Neglected landscaping on Del Cerro Boulevard

Neglected landscaping on Del Cerro Boulevard

Maintenance assessment districts are mechanisms wherein property owners within a certain area pay extra on monthly property tax bills to fund neighborhood improvements. Supporters of the self-imposed assessments say the districts empower community members by giving them control over what improvements will be made. Opponents, however, say the assessment districts are nothing but taxes passed without a public vote. Critics also say the taxes are a ruse used by the city to help pay for services that they already pay for on property-tax bills.

Since 1969, the City of San Diego has helped create 58 tax districts.

In Del Cerro, a small hillside community of 2400 residents adjacent to San Diego State University where the cost of single-family homes ranges from $740,000 to $1.5 million, members of the Del Cerro Action Council and its off-shoot (The Friends of Del Cerro) have submitted their proposal to the City of San Diego’s Park and Recreation Department. Staffers are currently drafting an engineer’s report, which will serve as the district’s rulebook.

Mark Rawlins was looking to make a park on Pasatiempo Avenue with assessment district funds, but nearby residents opposed it.

Mark Rawlins was looking to make a park on Pasatiempo Avenue with assessment district funds, but nearby residents opposed it.

The next step is trying to convince enough residents to pay an extra $150 per year on their property tax bills to improve medians on College Avenue and Del Cerro Boulevard, install new streetlights, increase the maintenance of neighborhood parks, and clean canyons and repair sidewalks.

Del Cerro resident Mark Rawlins’s reason for spearheading the effort to bring an assessment district to Del Cerro is simple: he feels the community looks run-down and the city’s maintenance standard is subpar. “Del Cerro is safe. There’s low crime, but it’s an older community and many of the improvements to medians were done by residents, not the city. The grass at Princess View Park is dying, the playground needs upkeep, and basically things won’t get any nicer unless the community takes matters into their own hands,” Rawlins says during a phone interview.

Joe Ney: “Many residents are retired and would need to make sacrifices in order to pay the tax.”

Joe Ney: “Many residents are retired and would need to make sacrifices in order to pay the tax.”

Rawlins, who moved to Del Cerro in 1994, was skeptical when first approached about creating a new tax district. “I said ‘Heck, no.’ I thought — and still do, really — that the city should be responsible for maintaining and improving our community. But during that time I’ve seen the medians deteriorate, grass at the local parks decay, and my hopes that the city would pay to improve our community fade away. Looking at the city budget, that’s just not going to change. Their standard is concrete and asphalt, not landscaped medians.”

In 2003, Rawlins and other members of the Del Cerro Action Council started their efforts to create a maintenance assessment district. Opposition mounted and later quashed the effort. Much has changed since 2003, says Rawlins, and support has grown. He says the younger families who have recently moved into the neighborhood are more willing to chip in. In 2015, Rawlins and his cohorts renewed their drive to create an assessment district.

He won’t budge

Many residents who opposed forming an assessment district in 2003 remain steadfast in their opposition. They say that Del Cerro Action Council members have intimidated and misrepresented the truth to residents in order to create the district.

Joe Ney, who moved to Del Cerro in 1999, says he opposes the district’s creation because, “Maintenance Assessment Districts are nothing more than a tax increase, a ruse used by local governments to bilk money from residents while bypassing state tax laws. Proposition 13 requires governments get two-thirds’ voter approval to raise taxes; assessment districts only require a simple majority. No matter how you sugarcoat it, these are unconstitutional.”

Ney says his opposition has resulted in anonymous crank calls and anonymous threats sent to his house. But he refuses to budge. He believes, if passed, the increased property-tax bills would put a strain on many of the older retirees who live on fixed incomes.

“I know of several people who could conceivably lose their homes. The assumption about Del Cerro is everyone is wealthy. Well, that’s just not true. Many residents are retired and would need to make sacrifices in order to pay the tax, whether that be cancelling cable, their phone, what have you, it doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t happen.

Ney, a retired state investigator, says he and other opponents have already collected 700 signatures from residents who will not vote for the new district.

Is it even legal?

The debate in Del Cerro is a microcosm of the larger legal issues involving maintenance assessment districts in San Diego.

Over the course of the past decade, residents of communities in Golden Hill, South Park, La Jolla, and a public advocacy group (San Diegans for Open Government) have challenged the districts in court.

In the case of Golden Hill, a judge found the city improperly weighted the district vote in order to make it pass. The residents who sued also prevailed in showing an overall lack of distinction between general benefits the city was responsible for and the special benefits performed by the district. The city was forced to invalidate the maintenance assessment district, pay $300,000 in attorney fees, and issue refunds to property owners — only a small number of residents, however, qualified for reimbursement due to a statute of limitations the city placed on the refund process.

In 2013, San Diegans for Open Government challenged the legality of imposing assessments without a public vote. The trial judge, and later the appellate court, dismissed the lawsuit due to the fact that none of the group’s members lived in a community that paid an assessment.

The challenges continue. In December 2016, former city attorney Mike Aguirre filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of La Jolla residents calling into question the legality of the community’s maintenance assessment district. In the lawsuit, Aguirre argues that the assessments are being used to pay for general services that the city is already required to perform, meaning residents are paying double for the same services. That case is now making its way through the courts.

According to Del Cerro resident Ney, the city will have another lawsuit on its hands if the Del Cerro maintenance assessment district is formed.

“If council authorizes a vote, I am fully prepared to file a lawsuit,” says Ney. “I strongly believe the city is in collusion to create this district. Why wouldn’t they be? It’s essentially free money. That only gives me more motivation to defeat this.”

According to Cory Briggs, the attorney for San Diegans for Open Government, the lawsuits aren’t likely to end and the city’s attempt at rewriting the law governing the districts falls short of the law.

“These assessments are taxes disguised as fees,” says Briggs. “Taxes require a public vote by flesh-and-blood registered voters, not by property owners. Property-ownership requirements for voting were abolished by the federal Constitution in the 19th Century.”

Adds Briggs, “The city’s process continues to be an illegal tax because it is essentially a neighborhood slush fund with no meaningful accountability or responsiveness to the community when it has concerns about how the city is spending the money, and it allows the city to balance its budget on the backs of desperate communities who see [maintenance assessment districts], despite their legal and administrative problems, as preferable to abject neglect that politicians otherwise allow.”

But for residents such as Rawlins, there is little left for residents to do when trying to improve their neighborhoods above the city’s standard.

“The city has no money, so what are we supposed to do, hold the city’s feet to the fire to spur change? That won’t work,” Rawlins laments. “Del Cerro is a small-peanuts community in San Diego’s eyes. This is a relatively minor investment for residents to ensure a higher standard of service. If we don’t do it, then nobody will. It’s time we take ownership of our community.”

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Cassander July 5, 2017 @ 2:01 p.m.

I've made the same arguments before that the MAD opponents present here.

This time around, I'll just emphasize how much the city is invested in strategically neglecting neighborhoods in order to convince property owners that putting themselves on the hook to fund a maintenance assessment district is their only option. Once one is in place, anyone complaining about services to city hall is told to take it up with the local MAD. Meanwhile, MADs free up the money the city would have to use for your area to spend elsewhere. It's a win-win for the city.

"[W]hat are we supposed to do, hold the city's feet to the fire...?" YES! That's the point of having government collect our property taxes in the first place: to ensure that those spending them are accountable. If you think it's too hard getting politicians to do what you want, you haven't tried petitioning the cliques that always end up running these MADs—which have shockingly little oversight. And if you don't like a MAD, you have to get the city council to vote for dissolution or run a petition drive to get it repealed. Read for yourself.

I for one am tired of rewarding shiftless behavior in government. Elected officials are not children that you sigh and perform their chores when they shirk them. It's high time we remember why they are called "public servants."


JustWondering July 5, 2017 @ 6:32 p.m.

Cassander: Great points! I hope Mr. Ney is afforded the opportunity to have this matter litigated. This nonsensed has gone on for far too long. The excuse used by the courts not to take this on, i.e. Plaintiff has no standing, was and is lame. Mr. Ney, will have standing, and I suspect there are plenty of folks willing to fund this litigation.

I too live in another "older" San Diego neighborhood. My street doesn't even have sidewalks, or parkways and several nearby streets don't even have curbs. Yet some neighbors pay property taxes in excess of $1,000 a month. Yes, a month.


AlexClarke July 6, 2017 @ 8:37 a.m.

“I know of several people who could conceivably lose their homes." Really? $12.50 a month will cause someone to lose their home? The increases in gas, electric and water will be far greater than $12.50. All property tax is governed by Prop 13. A long term homeowner will be paying property tax far less than newer homeowners. Considering that most people move in 4 - 7 years the average property tax paid to the city should be enough to properly maintain the neighborhood. I think that, given the historic financial mismanagement of San Diego, the additional taxes paid by the residents of Del Cerro would bear little fruit.


nostalgic July 6, 2017 @ 12:28 p.m.

These Maintenance Assessment Districts are assessed to the homeowner, but usually administered by the same people who manage the Business Improvement Districts. This is a convenient source of revenue for the BIDs, and no guarantees as to what maintenance is going to actually occur and where. So far, it takes a lawsuit to over-turn one. It is far easier to vote one in than to vote it out.


InOmbra July 7, 2017 @ 9:59 a.m.

The photo accompanying this article is taken right at the intersection of Airoso and Dartford. Someone cut away deadwood from tree growing in the strip of land alongside Airoso and piled the branches on the ground along the curb. Take a Google tour or a real-time drive in the area and look all around. There isn't a single leaf in the gutter anywhere. The neighborhoods and streets are meticulously neat and tidy. How easy for the scores of homeowners or their weekly yard workers on any of the nearby streets to put the pictured deadwood in piles for curbside greenery recycling! Or just haul it away or break it up and put it in the trash. All 2400 homeowners need not pay $150/year, forever, to deal with a simple, small cleanup on one bit of city curbway.

This photo is so typical of the MAD promoters: in Golden Hill in 2007 the "horrifying" promotional MAD photo was of one sack of trash and one bit of graffiti on a dead-end street. Cleaning it took 5 minutes. Getting rid of the illegal MAD took 5 years.

By the way, what Rawlins is pushing for Del Cerro is not a MAD, as defined by the State of California. Based on the scope mentioned by Rawlins, i.e., to "improve medians on College Avenue and Del Cerro Boulevard, install new streetlights, increase the maintenance of neighborhood parks, and clean canyons and repair sidewalks" is a PBID, a Property/Business Improvement District. It goes beyond a MAD, in which the assessment paid by a property owner has to confer special benefit to that owner's property, and not to the whole area or to the areas' businesses. San Diego has played a little game by conflating MADs and PBIDs. As a charter city, they think they can get away with it.

Irony: The La Jolla MAD being sued (plaintiffs represented by Aguirre) has on its board one of the plaintiffs' lawyers for the successful Golden Hill action, and Aguirre was the City Attorney who let Marco Li Mandri form the Golden Hill MAD. Only in San Diego.


InOmbra July 8, 2017 @ 2:40 p.m.

The Marti Emerald who voted for and supported every MAD when she was a councilperson must be the evil twin of the above commenter Martha Emerald. Only in San Diego ...


dwbat July 8, 2017 @ 4:53 p.m.

In 2011 the San Diego City Council voted unanimously, allowing Palomar Casino in North Park (and Lucky Lady Card Room at 5526 El Cajon Boulevard) to add two more tables. This was done after lobbying of Councilmembers Marti Emerald and Todd Gloria by Alan Ziegaus, principal of Southwest Strategies, LLC. Palomar was later raided by the FBI and shut down. Why was Emerald so eager to do Ziegaus' bidding? Was there a quid pro quo? I guess we'll never know.


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