Morning Report: American Southwest Volunteers Under Criminal Investigation

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Volunteers of America Southwest, a local charity, previously played an important role in providing aid and shelter to veterans, as well as people who are homeless, suffering from mental illness and addiction. But now the charity is under criminal investigation by the Office of Inspector General, reports Will Huntsberry.

Last year, Huntsberry exposed allegations of potential fraud, mismanagement, and embezzlement of public funds, by two whistleblowers, as well as San Diego County auditors.

After Huntsberry’s story, the charity’s board and chief executive were ousted and Department of Veterans Affairs officials suspended $2 million in funding.

“VOASW has cooperated and all parties are working diligently to resolve this issue,” a Volunteers of America spokeswoman wrote in a text message.

The spokeswoman did not comment on the charity’s current state of operations and did not make its current CEO available for an interview.

At least one Volunteers of America Southwest facility, a large 120-bed rehabilitation center in National City that was previously funded by San Diego County, is no longer in operation.

VA officials promised a forensic audit of the American Southwest volunteers after Huntsberry’s initial investigation. Huntsberry sent a Freedom of Information Act audit request, but did not receive it. He appealed the decision.

Read the full story here.

SDG&E proposes 9% rate hike by 2024

Line of power poles in Mission Hills / Photo by Dustin Michelson

San Diego Gas and Electric plans to raise gas and electric bills by nearly 9% starting in 2024 if state regulators approve a four-year spending plan proposed by the utility this week.

That means a typical residential customer (which SDG&E defines as a user of 400 kWh of electricity and 24 therms of gas per month) would see their utility bills soar by about $18 per month, according to the utility.

“We know our customers may not be very reassured,” Scott Crider, senior vice president of external affairs at SDG&E, told Voice of San Diego on Tuesday. “We recognize that with all the inflationary pressure with rising gas, food and housing prices, there is never a good time to ask for a rate increase.”

Investor-owned utilities in California must submit a rationale for raising customer rates to the state’s Utilities Commission in what is called a general rate folder. It’s basically SDG&E’s forecast of what it will cost to run its business largely for system infrastructure and maintenance, said Jamie York, who is leading work on those repositories. The 2024-2027 plan shows that SDG&E wants to spend $3.02 billion in 2024. That’s 28% more than planned in 2023.

Crider said the spending is largely focused on three areas: fueling a transition to clean energy, such as battery building and electric vehicle charging infrastructure; repair gas lines; and protect and prevent infrastructure from starting wildfires, including burying more power lines underground, which is one of the costliest wildfire-fighting measures utilities can undertake.

How much the utility could spend in 2025 and beyond would be proposed later, after accounting for inflation. The CPUC has 18 months to review the SDG&E spending plan.

The utility also wants to increase its cybersecurity budget, citing recent cyberattacks by Russia on Ukraine and American organizations and industries. And SDG&E wants to spend more on develop hydrogen as a potential source of renewable energy.

Energy bills soared in January, about 11% systemwide. So the extra expense is not good news for many. Over 25% of SDG&E residential customers owe money on their energy billsaccording to the Union-Tribune.

Craig Rose, a former Union-Tribune reporter turned advocate for the city of San Diego to get rid of SDG&E and form a utility, said these rate increases “make the case for the public energy.

“What better case do we need to revoke the franchise (with SDG&E) than these constant rate increases,” Rose said.

Mayor releases revised budget

Mayor Todd Gloria released his revised budget proposal Tuesday after City Council budget hearings and community feedback.

Here are some of the changes Gloria has made using planned tax revenue increases and an increase in American Rescue Plan Act funds that were previously unspent:

  • $547,000 and three new positions at the City Attorney’s Office to support a unit focused on placing homeless residents unable to care for themselves into treatment and housing. That’s $47,000 more than city council members Marni von Wilpert and Jen Campbell were asking for for the purpose.
  • $331,000 to support the hiring of the city’s first behavioral health officer to assist city paramedics in serving residents with mental health needs.
  • $200,000 for a so-called safe camping pilot program for vulnerable homeless seniors, which includes case management and services “in partnership with private resources and San Diego County.” The defenders were urge the city have been taking this approach for months and explored potential locations. The Housing Commission recently said it was also looking at the concept.
  • $5.4 million to lease and improve more properties to “expand communal and non-collective shelters” for homeless residents.
  • $4.1 million for increased police overtime.
  • $1.5 million and 16 full-time equivalent positions to support a second team of public restrooms and garbage collection in city parks, plus $388,000 for park and restroom security. We have written extensively about the challenges of the city’s public restrooms.
  • $725,000 for a consultant to produce an analysis of the city’s downtown office needs, pursue an effort this is already underway as the city also weighs its future at 101 Ash St. and Civic Center Plaza.
  • $500,000 to hire a consultant to assist the city with Sports Arena-related development and lease negotiations.
  • $528,000 to hire five lifeguards to “support the boating safety unit and provide night operations for the North District.”

In other news

  • A planned $950 million wastewater recycling project in East County is now in doubt after the city of San Diego reneged on its promise to provide $35 million to build a pipeline. (Union-Tribune)
  • Tuesday’s City Council approved a ban on the sale of flavored tobacco, including menthol, from January. (City News Service)
  • The San Diego City Council took a crucial vote Tuesday to approve changes requested by the state Coastal Commission to its short-term vacation rental ordinance. Now the regulations are sent back to the Coastal Commission for final approval before they can come into force. (NBC 7)
  • The city council voted on Tuesday spend another $27 million on a backlit vision of a long-awaited downtown park, East Village Green, whose costs have skyrocketed. (Union-Tribune)
  • The city’s new ambulance provider could be hit with over $450,000 in costs for non-compliance with contractual requirements. (KPBS)
  • To research was in session at Whaley House in the Old Town on Tuesday for the first time since 1871. (NBC 7)

This morning report was written by Will Huntsberry, Lisa Halverstadt, MacKenzie Elmer and Andrew Keatts. It was edited by Megan Wood.

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