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City Council Convenes For First Budget Hearing

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders talks to reporters about the state's budget crisis on July 2, 2009.
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Above: San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders talks to reporters about the state's budget crisis on July 2, 2009.

Spending cuts proposed by Mayor Jerry Sanders would degrade public safety, a union official representing civilian Police Department employees testified today during the first of three special City Council hearings aimed at balancing the budget.

The city is facing a budget deficit estimated at $179 million, according to the mayor's office.

Michael Zucchet, head of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, said proposed spending cuts would effectively take sworn officers off the street.

"These are people doing police work," Zucchet told the City Council.

"This police work is either going to go away, and I don't think that is your proposal, or it is going to be replaced by sworn officers."

"Think of what you are doing," he said. "You are replacing a civilian, lower-cost employee and you are taking their job duties and assigning them to a much higher-cost, sworn police officer."

Zucchet used to be a City Councilman but resigned when he was caught up in a 2005 corruption scandal. He was eventually cleared.

Sanders' plan to close the budget deficit, in part, calls for the elimination of 500 positions, about 200 of which are filled.

Many of those cuts will come from the civilian ranks within the San Diego Police Department including investigative aides, police service officers and code compliance officers.

"Without the assistance of the police service officers, the sworn police officers will not have the time to respond to victims of crimes in a timely manner, therefore compromising public safety," said Julie Estill, a police service officer.

While police officers and firefighters will not be affected, their department budgets will be reduced by a total of $44.6 million.

As a result, police equestrian patrols will be eliminated, the number of canine units reduced and a Harbor Patrol unit in Mission Bay would be shut down.

At the fire department, the number of engine companies on duty would be reduced through "rolling brownouts." Wintertime lifeguards would also be eliminated at Torrey Pines Beach.

Cuts proposed for other city departments would mean the reduction of library hours from 41 to 36 per week at each of San Diego's 35 branches. Other planned cuts include:

-- removing fire pits from beaches;

-- less maintenance would be done at sports fields and beaches;

-- fewer vehicles would be replaced;

-- and the days and times of garbage collection would be changed.

Sanders' budget-balancing plan calls for $95.6 million in one-time savings and budget adjustments. Payments into the retirement system also would be restructured, and the city would delay putting fire sprinklers in City Hall.

Lani Lutar, president of the San Diego County Taxpayer's Association, told the City Council the use of one-time funds to balance the budget was akin to "kicking the can down the road."

At the start of the hearing, Sanders testified that the city's budget deficit is the "most important issue facing San Diego today."

He blamed the looming budget deficit on declining tax revenues and investment losses brought on by the recession.

"As a result of circumstances beyond our control, we need to close a deficit of $179 million, the largest in our history, and we need to act swiftly to minimize the harm to city services," Sanders said.

"This budget protects the financial integrity we worked so hard to restore and it preserves our core services even as it takes necessary cuts in all areas including libraries, parks, police and fire," Sanders told the City Council. "Through early decisive action, we can safeguard our essential city programs so they are able to rebound along with the economy."

It is the fourth time in 19 months the city has had to adjust its budget.

The mayor has called on the City Council to adopt a new budget by Jan. 1, six months before the next fiscal year begins.

Today's meeting was the first of three scheduled by City Council President Ben Hueso's office to consider the mayor's proposed mid-year budget amendments. The City Council will also meet on Dec. 9 and Dec. 14, when it will vote on the 18-month spending plan. The City Council's independent budget analyst will outline her review of the mayor's budget proposal during the City Council's regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

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