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City Council Backs Mayor’s Budget Proposal

Audio

Aired 12/11/09

The San Diego City Council approved Mayor Jerry Sanders proposal to close the city's $179 million budget deficit earlier this week. What are the specific elements of the budget plan? And, does the proposal do enough to solve San Diego's long-term financial challenges?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Well, this week we saw one of those rare civic occurrences, almost total agreement from the San Diego City Council with Mayor Jerry Sanders’ budget cuts. And the elongated budget schedule that we usually have to 18 – rather than what we usually have, to 18 months from a year. So now this budget is good for 18 months, so let’s take a closer look at what happened and if those positive reactions go beyond the city council. Scott, really briefly for those who don’t have the specifics, how did the mayor cut $179 million?

SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, voiceofsandiego.org): Well, everybody keeps characterizing it as cuts and, certainly, there were cuts but half of this budget was made up by one-time, what you could argue, are gimmicks and accounting changes. And so, you know, sure there are things we’re going to have to deal with as a community, lower library hours, shorter library hours. We’re going to have to deal with the fact that certain people in the police department that used to support police, not as police sworn officers but as assistants and as parking meter people and all that, and they’re not going to be working for us anymore. There are going to be – or they’re going to be in different jobs. And I think that there are a number of these type of cuts, but the reason we had almost a unanimity on the council was because they weren’t very difficult cuts and what we did was paper over a problem once more and push out the pain into the future. This budget will not get us through the 18 months, it will get us through to a point where, again they come to us and say another $100 million is needed to be cut. And I – Well, go ahead, you had a question.

PENNER: Well, I wanted to bring Barbara and David into the conversation. Let me start with Barbara. Was the city council able to come up with any other ways of dealing with the financial crisis or were they just happy to leave it to the mayor to do what Scott characterized as papering over the problem?

BARBARA BRY (Opinion Editor, SDNN.com): Yeah, Gloria, this was clearly a difficult situation and I agree the city council just wanted to get it done, wanted to get it behind them. I mean, there were a few minor things, Donna Frye gave up a little bit of her own personal budget to, you know, keep a clerk in a city office. But otherwise, they pretty much went along with what the mayor did – wanted. One of the issues, and I guess we could talk about it is what about, you know, new revenues. I mean, that was something that wasn’t addressed.

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Actually it was as we broke the story today. Deep in the budget is a provision that requires the mayor to now start studying a new both trash tax and storm water fee. Now half the people in the city already pay to have their trash picked up. Those are people who live in apartments and such. This proposal would be studied, it would require single family homeowners to start paying a similar fee.

PENNER: Okay, let me ask our listeners, are you pleased, relieved or concerned about the way that the City of San Diego is going to deal with your money over the next 18 months. Are they doing the right thing by you or should they be biting the bullet? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. I’m going to ask you a tough one. I always save the tough ones for you, David.

ROLLAND: Yeah, I appreciate that, thanks.

PENNER: How bright and creative is this city council when it comes to intelligent problem solving?

ROLLAND: Oh, God. I can’t say that they have shown a large amount of creativity when it comes to budgetary problem solving. I’m – You’re going to have to take that as my best shot at that answer. I haven’t seen a whole lot of creativity. I’m not going to say these people aren’t bright. Some of them…

LEWIS: I think…

ROLLAND: …I think, are very bright.

LEWIS: Let’s not shortchange them. These are incredibly bright accounting changes.

ROLLAND: Yeah.

LEWIS: These are…

PENNER: But they didn’t come from the city council.

BRY: They came from…

LEWIS: Well, they approved them. And let me ask you a question. If you saw a corporation whose CEO was – or, a corporation for years and years was getting tons of revenue, it was booming with revenue but it was continually cutting the products that it offered. And then you had the CEO finally one year saying, you know what, this is going to be the worst year we ever have to deal with. The deficit is going to be worse than we ever have to deal with, and then urgently presses the board that oversees him to pass a series of accounting changes to cover half of that deficit. Let me ask you a question, would you invest in that corporation?

PENNER: I would take my money and run.

LEWIS: This is the City of San Diego right now. This is the city – This is the City of San Diego.

ROLLAND: Yeah, but the City of San Diego is not a private corporation. It serves a whole different purpose. A private corporation exists to make a profit.

BRY: But what does that have to do with it?

PENNER: Well…

ROLLAND: It’s got everything to do with it.

BRY: Gloria, I’d like to make a point.

PENNER: Yeah, well, let’s go to Barbara Bry.

BRY: So, first of all, you know, the city council takes its lead from the mayor so I think in terms of being creative or forward thinking about what we do with the city budget, the leadership has to come from the mayor. And the fact that looking at new fees is buried in the budget instead of the mayor getting up at a press conference and saying, listen citizens, you know, what are you – what services do you expect your city to provide for you? Okay, do you care about longer library hours? If you don’t, okay. Do you care about more police on the street? If not, okay. This is what it costs us to run the city; you’re going to have to pay for it one way or another.

PENNER: Well, Barbara, the mayor actually looked beyond the council for some advice and help when he appointed a civic leadership team which morphed into a task force to solve budget deficits. And they came up with a whole list of principles which they have not yet released. But it sounds to me as though we now have a task force whose findings are not pleasing the mayor.

LEWIS: I think that this group has recommended a series of things that say, look, you have to cap these costs, you have to look at new revenues, you have to stop the gimmicks and the half-truths, and if you’re not able to do each one of these things, then you have to consider taking the city into bankruptcy. And I think that basically what they’re saying is you have to do everything that bankruptcy would make you do or force you to at least consider or else you’ll have to consider that actual process. And the mayor’s tried to distance himself from this but I think the point is clear, that we have a bunch of people in this city right now, leaders like this, people like me and people like others, who say, look, we are strong enough as a community to deal with these problems. Just talk to us straight.

PENNER: Okay, David.

ROLLAND: Yeah, I can’t believe I’m about to be put in a position of sort of defending the mayor and the city council on this but I guess I just want to inject a little dose of reality into the situation. I’ve – I personally agree with everything Barbara just said. I have wanted the mayor to step forward and make a bigger case about what services cost and what San Diegans, you know, should be expected to kick down to receive those services. I have wanted more leadership there. But – And they have been talking, you know, prominent people at city hall have been talking for at least the last two years about specifically the trash fee and the storm water fee. They’ve been talking about it privately. Nobody will talk about it publicly because politicians generally don’t like to get behind what they think are losing campaigns and they believe those are losing campaigns, you know, but, believe me, they want those things passed.

PENNER: Mark in Clairemont, I think, is ready to bite the bullet. Mark, what is your recommendation?

MARK (Caller, Clairemont): Well, you’re talking – I’m a person who thinks that the citizens get a very good value for their dollar and that we’re not taxed enough and that we don’t have enough good services. One comment I have for city politicians is that I don’t think the corporate model works. I mean, they represent government and I never knew anybody in corporate America who would represent corporate America and say that everything we do is bad and we should get paid less and provide you less. They should be out there promoting the services they provide because it’s usually the cheapest way to provide the best services to the most amount of people, and they should be, you know, boosters for the kind of services, education, libraries, police, fire, health and safety, you know, public events, it’s all great and I don’t know why people are so afraid to have a progressive tax and be proud of the services that they can provide to the city.

PENNER: Okay. Thank you very much, Mark. I guess it would take a vote of the people to get a progressive tax, a tax of any sort. We’ll be back. We’re going to continue this subject in just a moment, take more of your calls and hear more from our editors. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. I’m here with Barbara Bry from SDNN.com, and from VoiceofSanDiego.org I have Scott Lewis, and with David Rolland from San Diego CityBeat. And we are definitely talking about the city budget. Looks like the council’s going along with the mayor. I think they get one more vote on this early next week. But they gave preliminary approval to the mayor’s ideas for balancing the budget and of course you’ve heard other ideas here as to whether there really were cuts or whether it was a sort of a one-time quick fix that is not going to be able to be sustained in months and years ahead. So we’d like you to join us and we’re going to start with Alex in Rancho Bernardo. Alex, you’re on with the editors.

ALEX (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

PENNER: Sure.

ALEX: I just want to tell people to make sure they think about the fees that’s going to be passed upon them. You know, I remember when the sewage fee was passed, it was like some minor amount and the next thing you know now it’s like $45.00 a month. You know, they’re going to start the same thing with their trash can pickup. They’re going to say for only so many – $75.00 a month, what are you worrying about? And next thing you know, like five years, it’s going to be $50.00 (sic) a month. So if the city really wants money they should keep earning back that money that they have instead of wasting it.

PENNER: Okay.

ALEX: And it boils my blood that Mr. – Mayor Sanders wants to spend $160,000 to study the feasibility of a new stadium but we don’t have enough money for the new public school or fixing the potholes. Don’t waste the money you have.

PENNER: Okay, thank you very much, Alex. Yeah, you know, people are not happy with the priorities. And what I’ve found interesting is that the mayor had originally said he was going to ask every department to cut their budget by 27%. Those are the cuts that did not happen. Why didn’t the mayor bite the bullet and go ahead and do what he said he was going to do?

LEWIS: Because it’s hard.

BRY: Yeah. And I’m not sure cutting every department by 27% is the answer. You know, maybe some departments should be cut more than others. We have to consider new fees. I mean, I’d actually recommend, you know, having a series of town halls around the community. What do you want your government to provide for you, and here’s what it costs and are you willing to pay for it?

ROLLAND: Well, but nobody shows up at those things except for the people that show up to city hall anyway.

LEWIS: Well, and here we – we’re getting to a – I make this point often, where the city is dissolving and this is it. And we have to decide whether that’s okay or not. Basically, if you care about a local park, a local service of any kind, fire pits or Mission Bay or Balboa Park, you’re going to have to find a way to pay for them yourself.

PENNER: It’s interesting, though, there are, let’s say, interested citizens who are coming forth. For example, former candidate for mayor, Steve Francis, he came up with some specifics. He questioned spending $6 million on arts organizations while browning out the fire companies, and spending half a million on a new city hall and no pay cuts for upper management when so many workers have lost jobs. Is he right, Barbara?

BRY: Those are, you know, little – I mean, I think upper management should take a pay cut because the cuts should always start at the top. My youngest daughter works for the City of LA and not only did she get a 6% pay cut, she also has to take unpaid furlough days, and she’s happy to have a job. So I think cuts start at the top but, otherwise, you know… You know, six and a half million dollars is not going to solve the city’s problems. You really have to step back and look at the larger picture.

PENNER: Who? Who’s going to step back and look at the…

BRY: Well, I think it has to start with the mayor.

PENNER: Okay, well…

BRY: And maybe this task force he’s appointed can help him in doing that.

PENNER: All right, well, final comment from you, Scott.

LEWIS: Well, I think that task force did some bold work. I mean, they were brought together by the mayor himself and they’ve told the mayor stop the gimmicks, stop the half-truths, just treat us all like adults so that we can all decide what type of city we want. And I think that, you know, the mayor has branded his critics as people who want to hurt the city or something like that. Look, we want the city to deal with reality. We think the city is strong enough to not be deceived like this and to just handle these problems and correct them. We can build things, we can have services, we can have a clean environment, we can do these things if you treat us all as though we can deal with the facts.

PENNER: And that task force’s report has not yet been made public. What is the best way to get that out to the public?

LEWIS: Well, they leaked it. We’ve somehow got it on the VoiceofSanDiego.org and, you know, we’ll see what they can do with it.

PENNER: That’s first draft, right?

LEWIS: Yeah, and they said they’re going to change it. We’ll see what happens. I don’t know. I’m excited to see. And I think the mayor and the city council need to deal with it. Look, these aren’t the people that show up – you know, these aren’t people that scream at them from the streets or something like that. These are some, excuse me, some very smart business people and others who are – who have studied the situation for quite some time. They’re recommending not just cuts, not just reforms of the governments but also actual tax increases and such if all this can come together. This is a comprehensive situation that we need to deal with comprehensively. And I think that they’ve put together an interesting thing that we need to all bite on.

PENNER: Okay, very good. Thank you for that interesting discussion, and let’s move on.

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