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San Diego County Air Pollution Control District
It Has Used Vehicle Registration Fees to Subsidize Its Permitting Process, Reducing the Amount of Funds Available to Address Air Pollution

Report Number: 2019-127


The San Diego County Air Pollution Control District (San Diego Air District) exists to protect the residents and the environment of San Diego County (county) from the harmful effects of air pollution. The 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 currently operates as a county department and is governed by the San Diego County Air Pollution Control Board (district board), which consists of the county's five-member board of supervisors. The district, however, is not supported by the county's general fund; instead, the majority of its funding comes from other revenue sources, including vehicle registration fees, federal and state grants, and the permitting fees that it collects from the operators of stationary sources of pollution. We conducted an audit to review the district's financial transparency and its interaction with stakeholders and the public regarding decisions that affect regional air quality. This report draws the following conclusions:

The San Diego Air District Uses Vehicle Registration Fees to Subsidize Its Permitting Program

Although state law allows the district broad discretion over the use of the vehicle registration fees it receives, 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 fiscal year 2018–19, the district collected $8.7 million in permit fees, but we calculated that the total cost of the permitting program was $12.5 million. By raising permit fees to the level necessary to fully pay for the permitting process and using more of the vehicle registration fees it receives to address emissions from mobile sources, the San Diego Air District could advance the State's efforts to meet federal air quality standards in the San Diego region and its own mission of improving air quality. In fact, for the county to meet federal air quality standards, the California Air Resources Board estimates that it must reduce emissions of ozone-causing pollutants by 26 tons per day. However, in 2019 the county's stationary sources produced only 4 tons per day of such pollutants, while mobile sources, such as cars, trucks, and buses, contributed 82 tons daily.

The San Diego Air District and the District 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. Other districts use plans to guide their public engagement efforts and social media to publicize opportunities for public engagement and encourage participation in workshops. Although the San Diego Air District holds workshops and conducts surveys to get input from the public, other aspects of its public participation efforts, such as social media, are limited to public outreach. The district board has also failed to exercise sufficient oversight of its advisory committee. The 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. In addition, 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. Finally, the district 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 San Diego Air District Cannot Provide Accurate Complaint Information and Has Not Ensured That All Complaints Are Properly Addressed

Although the San Diego Air District investigates public complaints regarding air quality, it cannot currently 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.

Summary of Recommendations

To ensure that the permit fees it charges are sufficient to pay for its permitting program, the San Diego Air District should increase fees until its revenue from permit fees is equal to the full cost of the permitting program. Further, to help reduce ozone-causing pollutants in the county, the San Diego Air District should use its vehicle registration fees to address emissions from mobile sources. To ensure that it encourages public participation in the creation of its regulatory and permitting policies, the San Diego Air District should create and implement a plan to guide its public participation efforts. Further, the district board should actively seek nominations for the vacant seats on its advisory committee. The district board should also publicly deliberate on decisions regarding regional air quality to increase transparency and demonstrate its commitment to include the public in its decision-making process. To ensure that it provides accurate complaint information and is addressing all complaints properly, the San Diego Air District should do the following:

Agency Comments

The San Diego Air District generally agreed with our recommendations and stated that it is initiating actions to implement these recommendations. However, it disagreed with our conclusion that its advisory committee failed to comply with state public meeting requirements.

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