The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District lacks transparency and has been using vehicle tax revenue to subsidize its budget, the state auditor says in a new report.
The air district is responsible for regulating stationary sources of air pollution, such as factories, power plants and gasoline stations, and monitoring air quality throughout the county. It operates as a county department but is not supported by the county’s general fund. The majority of its funding comes from other revenue sources, including vehicle registration fees, federal and state grants, and the permitting fees it collects from the operators of stationary sources of pollution.
Although state law allows the district broad discretion over the use of the vehicle registration fees it receives, the auditor said that “its decision to use these funds to subsidize the cost of its permitting program for stationary sources of air pollution instead of raising the permit fees to cover its actual costs does not advance the district's mission of improving county air quality.”
In 2018-19, the district collected $8.7 million in permit fees, but the auditor calculated that the total cost of the permitting program was $12.5 million. Vehicle taxes, which many Californians believe are earmarked only for road repairs and other transportation improvements, were used to subsidize the permitting program.
The auditor also found:
Although the district investigates public complaints regarding air quality, it cannot provide the public with accurate and thorough information about how it addresses those complaints because of inaccurate data in its complaint database. “Because of our concerns with the complaint data, we reviewed the investigation reports for a selection of 10 complaints and determined that the district failed to investigate one of the 10 complaints, an oversight that might have been avoided if supervisors were required to review investigation reports within a specific time frame after complaints are received, and it did not investigate a second complaint within the time frame established in its policy,” the auditor stated.
The district’s advisory committee did not have a legally required quorum – a majority of members present – to take action on agenda items at any of the 13 meetings it held from fiscal year 2016-17 through December 2019.
The district board failed to ensure that the seats on the advisory committee that are intended to include stakeholders from business and environmental interests were filled: one of the seats for members nominated by environmental organizations has not been filled in almost 30 years, the other has been vacant for more than 24 years, and the seat for a representative of small businesses has been vacant for more than 12 years.
The board “is not using its public meetings to deliberate on decisions regarding improving regional air quality, despite the fact that doing so would likely increase transparency and demonstrate its commitment to include the public in its decision-making process.”
The auditor also reported that the air district and its governing board “have not taken adequate steps to foster public engagement.”
“The San Diego Air District does not take advantage of some methods used by other air districts to encourage public participation, which can be divided into two categories: public outreach to inform the public, and public engagement to obtain input from the public,” the auditor stated. “Other districts use plans to guide their public engagement efforts and social media to publicize opportunities for public engagement and encourage participation in workshops.”