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Sanders Reports City Must Live Within Means to Get Back on Track

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders delivered his second state of the city speech at Golden Hall last night. His assessment was a “no frills” look at the challenges that still face the city as it struggles to live within its means. KPBS reporter Alison St John has more on the speech, and reactions from some of those who attended.

Mayor Sanders remains popular after his first difficult year in office, partly due to his honest demeanor .

Sanders:  I’ve been known for plain talk, so let me give it to you straight

Sanders admitted that the problems he’s unearthed run even deeper than he expected. 

Sanders: The truth is that the only way we can accomplish a sustainable organization is to live within our means to do so  we will not be able to provide city services in the way we do today, we simply can afford it.

Sanders talked about cutting over 900 positions over the next three years, including 650 this year. However, many of those cuts will come from simply not filling vacancies.

Carl Demaio, who masterminded the Managed Competition Initiative that passed last year, was impatient to see  the mayor  put that into practice.

Demaio: I think he did a good job of summarizing the progress he’s  made in identifying the problems but really its now got to be down to action. Lets see the pain lets see the cuts.  2007 has got to be where we make the tough decisions.

Members of the city’s labor unions picketed civilly in front of Golden Hall before the speech. Newly elected municipal employee union president Howard Guess was resigned to imminent cuts , but said the mayor should focus on other layers of government apart from the workers.

Guess: These are the people who are saving your child from drowning the lifeguards, these are the folks that go out and fix the water main breaks. We think there are some other areas where the city could save some money for instance the upper management.

But Sanders is focused on managing city services differently. He hinted at the shrinking role of city employees to provide city services.

Sanders: We must step back from those things that we don’t do well  or that others do better, if we don’t the problems of the past will pale in comparison to the problems of the future

He alluded to a significant reform of employee pensions

Sanders:  I intend to pursue major changes to the city’s retiree health systems one of the ways that I intend to get this done is to create a new pension plan for new city employees

Lani Lutar of the San Diego Taxpayers association was pleased to hear this.

Lutar: Right but then again that is something that he said he would wait until 2008 to do so that is something we would have preferred to see the mayor start on immediately as opposed to waiting  another year.

One thing Sanders will tackle this year is renegotiating higher salaries for police officers.

Sanders: In order to stem the tide of departures, I’ve told officers that I intend to correct the take home pay deficiencies identified in the study starting this month. That said any decision to expend taxpayer funds will only be made by me after careful consideration.

The mayor may not have considered another proposal in his speech carefully enough. His suggestion to rebuild City Hall met mixed reviews. Sanders said it could save the city millions in leasing other buildings.  Scott Alvey of the Chamber of Commerce was open to the idea.

Alvey: I think that if nothing more than symbolically that the city needs a new start in a lot of ways. Maybe that’s just part of it

But even though Sanders said he will only proceed with the idea if it saves the city money, Lutar of the Taxpayers Association was dubious.

Lutar: A little skeptical about the plan based on the history of the city not accounting accurately for operating and maintenance costs.

Lutar says the city’s priority should be to pay down the deficit, rather than embarking on ambitious redevelopment projects.  The mayor was careful to say the plan is in the exploratory stages.

One of the key questions that’ll affect how successful the mayor is in taking action next year will be his relationship with the city council. Rather than grumbling about the tensions between his office and the council members, Sanders was positive about the division of powers.

Sanders: We benefit greatly from the checks and balances created from the Strong Mayor reform. Had they been in place during the preceding decade, many of the problems could have been avoided.

The mayor’s appreciation of the political rough and tumble at City Hall will be tested in the year ahead as he attempts to put his plans into action . Alison St John KPBS News.

Sanders talked about restructuring government to make it more efficient – called   Business Process Re-engineering  –  and compared it to performing heart surgery on a marathon running in the middle of running a race.

Alison St. John, KPBS News.

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