REGION — Over two North County cities’ dissent, SANDAG’s board on March 26 approved a draft $1.1 billion FY 2022 budget, including increased administration costs, for regional transportation and environmental infrastructure development.
“Our agency has been running too lean in too many areas for too many years,” said SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata.
“We’ve tightened our belts as much as we can,” said Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Ray Traynor. “Additional resources are now needed.”
SANDAG, a countywide agency governed by elected municipal officials, serves as a kind of clearinghouse for big federal transportation dollars. The draft budget, incorporating tweaks, will return to the board for final approval later this spring, before the new fiscal year kicks off July 1.
Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall and Oceanside City Councilman Chris Rodriguez cast the only votes against the draft budget, after a motion by Rodriguez to add independent auditor positions failed. Rodriguez said he wants additional scrutiny to ensure such large-scale spending stems from “realistic underlying assumptions” and has fully vetted “other possibilities or options.”
Other North County representatives present — including officials from Encinitas, Escondido, San Marcos, Vista, Solana Beach, and the county board — voted to approve the draft.
SANDAG’s portfolio of 133 capital projects accounts for nearly two-thirds of the budget — $687 million in FY 2022, stretching to $8.6 billion through FY 2030.
Top-priority projects include stabilizing seaside bluffs against erosion in Del Mar, until the bluff-top railroad tracks can eventually be relocated inland, Traynor said.
The stabilization project, including physical reinforcements and improved drainage, will cost $65 million through FY 2026.
Other projects in North County include high-occupancy freeway lanes between Encinitas and Carlsbad ($408 million) and a replacement freeway bridge over the San Elijo Lagoon in Encinitas ($337 million).
SANDAG’s total FY 2022 administrative and personnel costs weigh in at $92 million, an 11% increase on the current fiscal year. That amount comprises salaries and benefits, overhead, contracted services, and indirect costs allocated to other budget categories.
The budget diverts about $3 million of TransNet regional sales tax revenues from road programs to administration, doubling the proportion of that revenue stream normally allotted for that purpose. Voters approved TransNet, a half-cent countywide sales tax to fund transportation projects, in 1988, and extended its timeframe in 2004, albeit by a margin of less than 1%.
The draft budget adds 15 new staff positions, which SANDAG staffers said would streamline spending and boost revenues in the long run.
Using data “can allow us to better optimize the billions of dollars that we invest,” but “this is not coming without a cost,” Traynor said. “Making use of this data requires advanced skills in data science, advanced skills in quality assurance.”
“I’m straining our finance department to the limit. In fact, two of my most seasoned transit accounting team members recently resigned, they couldn’t keep up,” said SANDAG CFO Andre Douzdjian. “As funding gets scarce, we need additional resources to go out and find outside funds to continue to leverage our program.”
Job descriptions for two additional financial analysts include “pursuit and implementation of strategic funding opportunities,” according to the budget document.
“Sometimes while you’re pinching the pennies, dollars can walk out the door,” said Santee Mayor John Minto. “Since we have reduced staff over the years, maybe it is time to bring back staffing.”