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Will Mayor Sanders’ Budget Plan Cut San Diego’s Record Deficit?

Audio

Aired 12/4/09

Mayor Sanders announced his plan to tackle the city's budget shortfall. Proposed cuts will reduce police and fire staffing, trim library hours and eliminate hundreds of city jobs. Does the city of San Diego have a long-term strategy for addressing its budget problems? Where will the pain be felt?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Let’s come back to the City of San Diego now. As they say, the mayor proposes, the council disposes but maybe not this time. Tough times in San Diego may change the San Diego City Council’s tendency to neuter Jerry Sanders’ plans to cut city spending. So, Ricky, the mayor has proposed cuts before. What’s different this time?

RICKY YOUNG (Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, the size of the problem is bigger. We’re looking at $179 million deficit in the coming year, maybe even larger. And that seems to have the council’s attention. He’s put a number of cuts on the table. Some critics are saying he’s not cutting enough because a number of the changes are aimed – I mean, excuse me, a number of the things used to close the budget gap are taking from a reserve fund or delaying a project or this sort of thing as opposed to really cutting the cost of government. And, you know, but he’s put cuts on the table that the council is having to take seriously despite, you know, an interest group coming forward for every cut.

PENNER: You know, it’s got to be tough for the council to sort of protect their political turf and at the same time recognize that things in the city need some changing. I’m going to ask our listeners about this. Okay, so if you were on the city council now and you heard the mayor say, okay, we’ve got to make some cuts here, we have to cut the unsworn police department employees and we’re going to have to cut back on some engine companies and we’re going to have to cut some library hours and what have, and you were on the council and you were representing your area in the City of San Diego, how would you deal with this? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. John, let me turn to you with all of your experience. Over the last couple of years, we have been told that we are going to feel the pain, that San Diego is going to feel the pain of these cutbacks, that the revenues aren’t there. And now we are being told that no police officers are going to be cut, that no libraries are going to close, that no parks are going to close. Where’s the pain?

JOHN WARREN (Editor/Publisher, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint): Well, the pain’s two places. The first pain that is alluded to here is that there’s going to be a reduction in services without an elimination of services and so libraries won’t be open on Sunday, no longer will lifeguards patrol Black’s Beach, no longer will we have the mounted units that we have in Balboa Park, the 12 dogs that we have with the canine entity will be put away. We have a situation where there are 300 vacancies in the City and they won’t be filled. And 200 people who supposedly will have their jobs eliminated, we’re told that they will be given a chance to transfer to other places, so we have a shell game going on in effect. The mayor took cuts from one of his departments but the second one where he has his chief financial officer with the two, three people, they took an increase in terms of the budget. So the people are still hearing it but I don’t think they believe it, and that’s where part of the problem is because he’s, in effect, putting off the reality of making hard, permanent cuts until a time when he’s probably gone. So some people liken this to just kind of, you know, pushing the can down the road as opposed to picking it up.

PENNER: Vicente, this – I wonder if this seems just like an exercise to you, considering the economic devastation that Tijuana must be feeling especially with the tourist business suffering.

VICENTE CALDERON (Editor, Tijuanapress.com): Well, yeah, in general terms, yes. It’s very interesting to see where they’re going to be cutting, the things that we’ve never been able to have, for example the police canine units which is a novelty in Tijuana, for example. And the thing is…

PENNER: And police on horses…

CALDERON: And police on horses, I mean…

PENNER: …they’re gone, too. Or will be.

CALDERON: Yes, they will be. Well…

YOUNG: The horse is not the police.

CALDERON: Yeah, yeah, the horses – I mean, it’s tough times for everybody and I think they need to have a better discussion on this and to see where other areas of cutting or trimming can be found. And I’m sure in all the bureaucracies in the government, there’s a lot of things that are not really necessary.

PENNER: Well, you know, my producer tells me that Mayor Sanders and two council people, Tony Young and Kevin Faulconer, have a television spot inviting San Diegans for advice on the city budget. Well, I can’t think of a better place to give them advice than right here. If you have advice to give the mayor and council people on what to do about the city budget, please feel free to call us at 1-888-895-5727. Ricky Young, what do you think about that?

YOUNG: The – It’s been an interesting – They have a nice kind of well-produced ad inviting people to speak, and there’s also been a series of forums. They call it San Diego Speaks. A lot of the people speaking simply say don’t cut my program. And what is sometimes missing from the public dialogue is what should we cut. The answer that’s said most loudly is Carl DeMaio’s answer of let’s cut these employee pension benefits but, you know, the mayor and others say those are largely untouchable once granted. So that leaves you with other things. Gloria, you asked if there will be pain. You know, the 80-something positions from the police department are a lot of people who do administrative and other kinds of work that police officers will be left doing. And, you know, that would certainly seem to create an impact on public safety.

PENNER: The City’s financial forecasts, Ricky, show that pension payments will continue to increase for each of the next five years. So when Mayor Sanders leaves office in 2012, what chances are there that the city will be financially healthy since those pension payments take such a big chunk of the city budget?

YOUNG: Things look very bleak in the near term. What’s sort of ironic is that further down the line, after Jerry Sanders is long since out of office, there will be significant savings in some changes that he put in effect that take – that took effect on July first of this year, but those people won’t start retiring for several years to come. But their benefits are significantly less than the ones of the people who are retiring now.

PENNER: John, is there any sign that the city has a long term strategy for addressing its budget problems? I mean, what we see now is that there’s a plan for the next 18 months but what about long term?

WARREN: Well, that’s the complaint, that, no, there is no sign of a long term plan. What the mayor’s operating on is the idea of a one-time hit so if we hit all these things on this one-time basis, we can balance now and if we do this early, it’ll get us through the next 18 months. And that’s not really coming to grips – we haven’t come to grips with the pay fees for trash collection, we haven’t come to grips with this whole idea of requiring new hires that come into the City to be excluded from this notorious DROP program that we should’ve done something about in terms of getting rid of. We still have people retiring, increasing the debt servicing of the pension program because they’re retiring at those higher rates based on what’s in place. And so I come back to what I said before, we still have a shell game at city hall that’s not bent on making real tough decisions.

PENNER: All right, let’s see whether we – well, we’re not going to have time to take the next call because I do want to ask one more question of all of the editors and that is that the San Diego Union-Tribune editor Karin Winner announced that she is stepping down after a long career. She is retiring. Now there have been many changes at the Union-Tribune. It’s been taken over by Platinum Equity. It has a new publisher and president. What do you believe the retirement, the stepping down of a long time editor signals for the future direction of the newspaper? And I’m going to start with you, Ricky Young, because you work for that paper.

YOUNG: Well, if you listen to Karin—and I do—what it signals is that we’re on good footing. The new owners took over in May, these guys from Beverly Hills, who had never owned a newspaper before but have been involved in a lot of troubled businesses, have come in and they’ve started to turn things around. We are paginated, which means that our pages are now put together in a computer instead of with actually pasting them up on a piece of paper. They’ve done a lot of things like that that – investments that needed to be made years ago to sort of get us on the right footing and move forward. Karin is the last remaining department head from the old ownership. She stayed around long enough to gain a comfort that we’re in good hands and that we have a good future, and I tend to believe that.

PENNER: Okay, well, boy, that – that’s a very positive statement. Vicente, from your perspective, working in Tijuana, Tijuanapress.com, this big change in our major newspaper?

CALDERON: Well, the thing is, it’s just a change of guards and it’s a part of the normal evolution that all the media is seeing. And we just need to see what’s – who will be doing their duties and see the approach that they will have. The Union-Tribune, it’s the biggest paper, the largest paper here but it doesn’t have exactly the greatest reputation nationwide, and I’m not one to be uncourteous but they need to put a little bit more effort and we still need to see where are they heading.

YOUNG: Two Pulitizers in the last year, I think makes – in the last three years, I think, makes for a pretty good reputation.

PENNER: John Warren, you get the last 30 seconds.

WARREN: Well, I think that when you have new people coming in, there are going to be changes and I don’t think that the new editor, whoever that person is, is going to necessarily make that much difference outside of what the owners want. And so the view is to look toward what the owners permit and not so much the limiting of the departure of the present person.

PENNER: Okay, we’ll keep an eye on all that. Thank you very much, John Warren, San Diego Voice & Viewpoint, Vicente Calderon, Tijuanapress.com, and Ricky Young, San Diego Union-Tribune. This has been the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

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