Tony Young Presiding Over City’s Shrinking Budget
Monday, December 7, 2009
Tony Young, San Diego City Councilmember for the 4th District, talks about the City Council's accomplishments in the year just past and the difficult decisions and declining service on tap for 2010, as the city's budget continues to shrink.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The saying that goes ‘may you live in interesting times’ is said to be a Chinese curse. And in that respect, these are certainly interesting times for the San Diego City Council. The Council is now engaged in reviewing and hearing public comment on the mayor's proposed cuts to close a record $179 million budget shortfall. We're doing a series of interviews here on These Days to check in with, and re-introduce, the members of the San Diego City Council. We're also hoping to hear their concerns and solutions as the city navigates through some perilous economic times. My guest today is Councilman Tony Young of District 4 and, Councilman Young, welcome to These Days.
TONY YOUNG (San Diego City Councilman, 4th District): Good morning, Maureen. How are you today?
CAVANAUGH: I’m doing fine. You manged to get here through the rain.
YOUNG: Yes, I’m a little wet but I’m okay.
CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s remind our listeners, if we can, about the area that you represent on the city council. Where is your district? How would you characterize it economically and demographically?
YOUNG: First of all, it’s about 8 miles east of downtown San Diego. It’s in the southeastern portion of the City of San Diego, and we have about 170,000 people there, which include communities like Oak Park to the north, south Paradise Hills, and to the east Encanto. So it’s a large area. It’s a very diverse, probably the most diverse district in the city, and it’s a working class neighborhood.
CAVANAUGH: And you’re from District 4, are you not?
YOUNG: That’s right. I grew up there, went to Morse High School, graduated there, came back to work there, taught middle school there and high school there, and I’ve lived there for most of my life.
CAVANAUGH: Now, we’re talking with all the city council members, as I said, about this difficult year that’s ending and what’s head in 2010. I’d like to start out on a positive note and ask you what you think the city council did well, did best, in 2009. What were the accomplishments?
YOUNG: Well, we’ve done – I think we’ve done very well. The first accomplishment was to really work a lot better together. I think most people would look at our city council and see that we’ve worked more as a team. You don’t have bickering, you don’t have a lot of, you know, in-fighting that it was, you know, very public at times before this new council came along. So I have some new colleagues who are really engaged and really want to know what the people of San Diego want in their government, so it’s open, it’s honest, and it’s a good, good, good group. I think one of our best accomplished was really tackling our deficit, last year, head on. There weren’t – you know, there wasn’t any hesitation to work with our labor unions to get a 6% concession with most of them, and it was a very difficult decision to make. With a 8-0 vote, we did that. And then I think also the fact that we took the budget to the people, we asked the people what do you want in regards to this budget? How do you want it to reflect your needs and wants? And I think we did a good job with our San Diego Speaks process.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you a little bit more about that because I know you’re continuing to do that with the budget problems that we have now. But first, the 18 month budget period, tell us a little bit about that. Do you feel that that’s one of the accomplishments?
YOUNG: Well, we haven’t done it yet.
CAVANAUGH: Right, yeah.
YOUNG: So we’re going to vote on that. The final vote will be possibly December 14th.
CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm. Right.
YOUNG: It’s a proposal made by the mayor, and I think it’s a very good idea. And it’s actually one of the ideas that came out of San Diego Speaks that we got from the public, to say, hey, listen, why don’t you make those very difficult cuts early. You have a 18 month period to really decide on some of the issues that are really important to finish that deficit, that structural deficit that we have, and we can save money by making that decision early.
CAVANAUGH: Now, about the budget. And, as you say, the council had its first public hearing last week. I wonder if you could tell us what you took away from that hearing?
YOUNG: Well, first of all, I saw that, you know, the San Diego Speaks process worked very well because we’ve had that process for the last year and we went out to the communities and asked communities all over the city what they want in their budget. And so when we heard of the mayor’s proposal and then we had a chance for people to come into city hall and make their comments, many of the individuals that you would see there in the past were not there in regards to complaining about the budget, feeling like they hadn’t had a part of the process, because they had already given their input. So that that budget, I believe, reflected a lot of the things that were important to the citizens, therefore we had – it wasn’t as caustic, it was just kind of, hey, listen, we know this is a tough situation and we have to work together. And that’s what I was hearing from the labor unions, from the public, even the employees, they recognize the situation that we’re in based on the fact that we did so much work ahead of time.
CAVANAUGH: Now, basically, there needs to be some major cuts made across the board, and that’s what the mayor has proposed for this budget process…
CAVANAUGH: …that you’re in. You’re going to be voting on this in the middle of December, is that right?
YOUNG: Yeah, we have the option to do that. That’s what his proposal is, to make those – you know, make those cuts early, and I agree with that. So December 14th will be the last day, based on his proposal, to vote on that 18-month budget that will go all the way until the end of 2011 budget year.
CAVANAUGH: Now do you get the feeling that there are members of the council who are going to put up much of a fight on the mayor’s proposed cuts?
YOUNG: Well, there might be. First of all, I expect the council to weigh in, and we wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t weigh in. And there might be some additional ideas to make additional cuts or there might be some different ideas on how we should go about this. So I expect that to happen, that we should do that. However, I am encouraging all my colleagues to say, to understand how important it is to make these decisions early because it saves us maybe up to $30 to $40 million because we acted early; we’re not spending money that we don’t have.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have a clear idea about, let’s say, how these proposed cuts in public safety, police and fire, are going to affect the 4th District?
YOUNG: Well, it’s going to affect every district. Every parts (sic) of the city, they’re – there’s going to be affected. The good thing about this budget, or at least this proposal, is that there won’t be any sworn police officers that will be laid off, so we won’t miss the coverage. If we actually, you know, if we went through the entire process and cut $200 million, we possibly could have lost a number of police officers, and this proposal doesn’t do that. So we’re cutting programs like the equestrian unit, the canine unit, some of those services that are a little bit more specialized than the line officers that are so important to all of our communities.
CAVANAUGH: How do you imagine the people of San Diego are actually going to experience these cuts in services from the city?
YOUNG: Well, their experience will be, first of all, there won’t be any cuts in officers but there’ll probably be some reduction in services. For example, there’s a unit that patrols the Mission Bay area that we’re eliminating, at least in this proposal. There might be some lag time in processing certain information because some of the non-sworn personnel members will be eliminated in this budget. So there will be an impact. I don’t want anybody to misunderstand that. There will be an impact, however the impact is not as great as it could have been. And now I believe that it’s important for the council, if we make this decision to make these cuts now. The next 18 months, we have to dedicate ourselves to finish the structural deficit so that we won’t have to do this every year on out.
CAVANAUGH: And in public safety, if you look at a broader range beyond public safety, people will be experiencing, let’s say, shorter hours at libraries and things of that nature, is that correct?
YOUNG: Right. Under the mayor’s proposal, there are no library closures but there will be reduced hours. There will be no reduction in police – I mean, fire – firefighters. We’ll have the same amount, however, there will be rolling brownouts according to his proposal. And so, you know, there are going to be reductions in services. And one of the things I think the citizens of San Diego need to do—and we’re going to allow them to do it partly with our San Diego Speaks process that we do but also with our process in regards to doing a service, a survey of the citizens to ask them what service levels do they actually want? And possibly as we move forward, we’ll be able to say, okay, this is what the people want when it comes to services, this is how much money we have, and we have a gap here, how do you want to close it?
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with San Diego City Councilman Tony Young of District 4. And I want to just follow up on something you said, the rolling brownouts. What exactly does that mean?
YOUNG: Well, that means there are going to be times where certain units in the fire stations will be out of service. The fire station wouldn’t be closed but one of the engines might be down. And it’ll be up to the fire chief to decide how that works but, essentially, there’ll be – we’ll actually be closing down certain engines that are in the fire house. Not closing down the fire houses but certain services within that fire house.
CAVANAUGH: Now I’ve read that there are some criticism about this budget package because it’s very heavy on one-time reductions and it basically postpones a lot of costs but it does very little to change San Diego’s chronic problem of spending more than we take in. How would you – Would you characterize it that way?
YOUNG: I wouldn’t characterize it that way but there is some truth to that. We are not totally eliminating the structural deficit in the City of San Diego. I want to make sure that’s clear. It looks like after we finish this decision on December 14th if we make that decision at that time, there’ll be probably about $80 to $100 million worth of structural deficit that we would have to address. And what I’m saying is that, first of all, making all those changes all at once would devastate the services in the City of San Diego. So I don’t support doing all those things at once. What I do support is making sure that we agree and promise as a council, as the mayor, as the public, and as these unions, to say that we are going to take these 18 months to finish the job, finish deciding exactly what – how we’re going to address the chronic structural deficit in the City of San Diego.
CAVANAUGH: And as part of those discussions, would you be in favor of increasing the city’s revenues in some way? Let’s say with a trash pickup free or other fees or taxes?
YOUNG: Well, I would say this, these are the things that I’ve asked for. I’ve asked for a audit of our revenue. There’s a revenue audit happening right now by our external auditor, Ed Luna, who will identify where we are when it comes to revenue. So we want to make sure that we’re getting all the revenue that we’re supposed to get first. I think that’s important for the people to understand. The second thing I’ve recommended to the council and the mayor and they’ve agreed to do this, is to create a commission on revenue review and economic competitiveness to – This commission, comprised of leaders throughout the city are going to look at not only revenue but also how we can make the City of San Diego more competitive and, in turn, create more opportunities for sales tax revenue so that we can find ways to increase the money that goes into our general fund. Before we start talking about those things when it comes to trash tax or anything else, I think we have to show the residents of San Diego that we’re willing to look at everything, including managed competition, to make the City of San Diego as efficient as possible.
CAVANAUGH: And that managed competition is the outsourcing, basically, of city services.
YOUNG: Right, and the citizens of San Diego voted for that and so I think it’s – we’re obligated to make sure that we implement that. We have to make sure it’s implemented fairly but we should implement that. And I don’t think it’s going to bridge that $100 million structural deficit but it will be a piece of the pie, a piece of the plan to actually get us back on a firm footing.
CAVANAUGH: And after all this is done, after the audit, after all of the input and so forth, do you think that, indeed, San Diego is going to see an increase in its fees? Is that something that’s just inevitable?
YOUNG: Well, I’m not ready to say that yet. I think it would be disrespectful to the process that we’ve put in place, and until we do that, I don’t think that we should be talking about revenue. I know some folks are and that’s okay and maybe that’s where we’re going to have to go but at this point in time, we have to – I really believe that we have to show the residents that we are efficient, effective and thoughtful on how we spend their money before we ask for anything else.
CAVANAUGH: Gotcha. I understand. Now you mentioned San Diego Speaks a couple of times. I just recently saw a TV commercial with you and…
CAVANAUGH: …Kevin Faulconer and Mayor Sanders and basically you’re asking for public input. You’re set – you’re very happy with the way this is – the San Diego Speaks program is going.
YOUNG: Yes, and as I said, when I became the budget chair, that’s what we started. We started this process and since then it’s been a tremendous success. We’ve had, you know, this couple – this last week we had over 100 folks come on a Saturday afternoon in mid-city to present their ideas for the proposal. And it’s not a situation where they’re just coming in and complaining about stuff. They’re saying, for the most part, hey, I have an idea. This is how we think that you can save money from the city. Some of it’s labor, some of these individuals are labor union members, some of them are community members, and many of them are community members, business members. They say, hey, listen, if you did it this way, you could save money and you can make the citizens of San Diego a lot happier. And I would say this last budget included a lot of recommendations that came out of the San Diego Speaks process, including a four-hour (sic) work week for our sanitation drivers.
CAVANAUGH: And do you – are you planning another San Diego Speaks meeting soon?
CAVANAUGH: Do you know where that would be?
YOUNG: Yes, it’s going to be in my district.
YOUNG: The last one for this cycle will be tomorrow, on December 8th. Tomorrow’s December 8th, right?
CAVANAUGH: Yes, it is.
YOUNG: Yeah, right. I just wanted to make sure. At six o’clock at the Joe & Vi Jacobs Center. It’s on the corner of Market and Euclid.
CAVANAUGH: Now, one of your interests, I know, Councilman Young, is making sure that minority and women owned businesses get a fair share of city contracts. How are we doing on that now?
CAVANAUGH: Not too well.
YOUNG: The statistics say that we’re not doing very well at all but they say that throughout the entire region and throughout the entire state. The City of San Diego has not fared very well. Now, I will say, though, that we have made some really important changes and we’re going to – we’ll see how those work. One of the things that we’ve done, we just had a press conference with the mayor last week, is we identified $18 million of small contracts that small businesses can bid on when it comes to the citizens of the City of San Diego. So the citizens can – These business owners can bid on these small contracts. We have bonding for them with the help of the Small Business Association. And I think many of our minority and disadvantaged businesses will be able to participate in that program, and we’re going to try to spend that money in six months. And so I think – We’ll see how that works and – but we’re doing a lot of outreach. We’re doing a lot of outreach with the Airport Authority also to – with our new green build terminal that we’re doing over there and trying to use some new ways to get minority businesses involved.
CAVANAUGH: Now, speaking of city contracts, you know, some people believe that the economic downturn makes this an ideal time to tackle big projects like maybe a new downtown library, city hall, maybe a football stadium. Construction costs are lower, jobs will be created. You know, and then other people think it’s crazy to do this kind of thing in the middle of a recession. You voted to send the library project out for bids. What’s your take on the idea of this kind of construction and the kind of jobs that it might create?
YOUNG: Well, Maureen, I’m glad you asked that question. First of all, we sent it out – for the library, we sent it out for bid to find out how much it would cost.
YOUNG: We want to make sure that we’re spending the money wisely. But I look at it this way, first of all, whatever we do has to be cost effective and can’t be impactive on the general fund of the citizens – the City of San Diego. And that’s really important because those are the – that’s the way that we spend money to actually pay for police and fire and the services that the citizens want. Now if there’s money that’s outside of that, then I think it’s kind of a different story even though we still have to constantly look at how we spend that money but it’s not the general operations of the City’s workforce. But the way I look at it is this, you know, some of the greatest projects in this country have been created during our most economically depressed times. I mean, all right, the San Francisco bridge, for example, the Hoover Dam, these are all done during the Great Depression. And so everybody looks at those projects as being, you know, great projects. Obviously, they’ve lived a really useful life. So I don’t – I’m not hesitant to make decisions on these projects because it’s a difficult economic time in general in the City of San Diego. However, I think we also have to be cautious on how we proceed and that’s what I’ll continue to do.
CAVANAUGH: Now, let me go back to the idea that you are now dealing with the strong mayor experiment in San Diego. We’ve had that in place now for a number of years. Next year is the sunset year for that experiment. Now, for anybody who doesn’t understand what a strong mayor is, it took the mayor off the city council and gives him a lot more independent power on budget proposals and administrative decisions. How do you think the strong mayor system is working?
YOUNG: I didn’t support the strong mayor system at the beginning, and I don’t like to call it the strong mayor form of government because I think it’s a loaded question to voters: Do you want a strong mayor? Of course, we all want strong mayors.
YOUNG: But we want a strong mayor, strong council, and I think this has worked reasonably well even though I didn’t support it at the beginning. There should be some changes. I’m always going to look at ways to empower the legislative body and there are certain things that we’ll be talking about in the future at council in how we do that. But I think it has worked reasonably well, partly because we have a good mayor, I mean, and so I’ve never been in a situation where we’ve had a really bad mayor, and that could be disastrous.
CAVANAUGH: So are you thinking of voting to make this permanent? Or do you want to see some changes first?
YOUNG: I’d like to see some changes but I’m considering voting to support it.
CAVANAUGH: What changes would you like to see made?
YOUNG: Well, I want to make sure that the—and I haven’t really vetted all this out—but I just want to make sure that the legislative branch does not lose its influence or its power to represent the people because I think they have the closest connection to the communities that they represent. And we have to make sure that they don’t lose that authority.
CAVANAUGH: And I have to ask you in closing, if you could have a New Year’s wish for San Diego, what would that be, Councilman Young?
YOUNG: This is a real easy one. As a city representative, I would wish for $100 million to close the budget gap.
CAVANAUGH: You think we’re going to see that?
YOUNG: Not yet. We’re going to work on it, though.
CAVANAUGH: One final, final question, you’re up for reelection next year. Will you be running?
YOUNG: I will be running for that.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. I want to thank you for your time so much this morning. Thank you.
YOUNG: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Councilman Tony Young of District 4, and it is part of our series of interviews with the members of the San Diego City Council. If you have a comment, please go online, KPBS.org/TheseDays. Now, coming up, some local global warming solutions. That’s ahead as These Days continues.
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