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Next time the government tries to 'solve' a social problem, it may hit your wallet

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Posted: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 12:00 am

In the 1974 movie "The Godfather, Part II," gangster Johnny Ola says to Michael Corleone, "Hyman Roth is the only one left because he always made money for his partners."

Of course, the movie is a fictional account of power and corruption, but could it represent real life? Could the character of Hyman Roth be symbolic of federal, state or local governments? Could those "partners" actually be opportunists within the legal system or otherwise?

It seems that whenever government attempts to solve a social problem, there are always those waiting in the wings to make money. This has been going on for years — from excessive bureaucratic building codes to the Americans with Disabilities Act. This also includes the courts expanding the definition of eminent domain, so that government can seize private property for business development.

Some of these "solutions" have affected me personally. My family owned a building on J Street in San Diego for over 120 years. It went back to the days of my great-grandfather, Virgil Bruschi, who served as a member of the City Council.

We faithfully paid their property taxes on the building through good and bad times. The worst was during the 1980s, when the area was run down and the store could not be rented. But things changed. Developers began to move in. Soon, the neighborhood became a popular tourist attraction. The store was only three blocks from the new baseball stadium. We were able to rent it to an antique business.

Our first slap from federal legislation came in the 1990s. A man in a wheelchair came into the store, asking if he could use the restroom. The business owner refused, stating that his facilities were small and not open to the public. But the "disabled" individual played on the proprietor's sympathies. He consented. Shortly thereafter, our family received a summons and a complaint, stating that we had violated the ADA, as the restroom was not "handicap equipped." It seems the restroom towel dispenser was two inches off of the regulatory height requirement.

We settled for $2,500, as this was far cheaper than fighting this injustice in court. As it turned out, our "disabled" plaintiff was in bed with a local law firm. He had pulled the same scam on the entire business block (all legal, of course), and "extorted" similar settlements.

Then in 1998, we received a letter from a San Diego developer, who offered to buy our store, coupled with a threat. He presented a low-ball figure, saying if we did not go along, the city would consider confiscation through eminent domain.

We ignored him. Soon thereafter, we received a letter from the city of San Diego, stating that our building would have to be extensively and expensively retrofitted in order to meet state earthquake code standards. Interestingly, it had made it through all those years without a problem, but apparently, leaders in Sacramento know best.

Eventually, the city fathers made their intention known that the power of eminent domain would soon be enacted. We assumed the reason was for more tax revenue. A much larger building on our site would serve this purpose. The developer wanted most of the block in order to build a new multi-story hotel.

We spent $50,000 in legal fees, trying to get a fair price. We settled for only a fraction of what the building would be worth three years later.

Ironically, it wasn't the lawyers that got us our price, but my innovative and creative sister, who had her own proposal before the Planning Commission. It was to open a dance studio and bring "culture" to the city. If the Commission agreed, she promised to bring her noted New York dancing daughter to run the business. They seemed to like the idea.

This unexpected twist of events from the Commission forced the hand of the developer and his "friends" to give us the amount we settled for. Adding insult to injury, when California property values went south, the developer backed out. Our building was torn down, and the space is now a parking lot.

So the next time you hear those in government say they are going to "solve" a social or tax revenue problem, you might want to think about hanging on to your hats, wallets and properties.

The next time, their "solutions" may very well be at your personal expense.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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