Todd Gloria Talks About San Diego’s Budget Challenges
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Todd Gloria, who represents San Diego City Council District 3, talks about the past year as a brand-new council member, the challenges ahead for city government under major budget constraints, and relations with the Mayor's office.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The City of San Diego is ending 2009 with a big bite taken out of city services, and a big question remaining for city council members. As this year’s record budget deficit – after this year's record $197 million budget deficit, how can San Diego get back on firm financial ground? This morning, we continue our series of interviews with the members of the city council and welcome Councilman Todd Gloria who represents the city’s 3rd District. And, Councilman Gloria, welcome to These Days.
TODD GLORIA (3rd District Representative, San Diego City Council): Good morning, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a bit about the district you represent. What communities does District 3 include?
GLORIA: I have great neighborhoods. I have a lot of the older urban neighborhoods in the central core of San Diego. I like to refer to it as sort of the heart of San Diego, and I have, I will wager, the best council district. I have the following neighborhoods: Hillcrest, University Heights, Normal Heights, Kensington, Talmadge, City Heights, North Park, Golden Hill, South Park and Balboa Park.
CAVANAUGH: And how would you characterize the population and income, you know, sort of the demographics of your district.
GLORIA: We are extremely diverse. We have over 30 different languages spoken in my council district. We have a large refugee population in the mid-city area, a large LGBT population throughout council District 3. And we have a lot of working class folks. I actually have the lowest median income of the council districts, about $46,000 a year. So a lot of folks that are working hard and rely on city services to make their neighborhoods better.
CAVANAUGH: You are now in the first year, the San Diego City Council. You got elected last November. What do you think you’ve learned about the position that you didn’t know when you were running for office?
GLORIA: Well, you know, I had come from a background of working for Susan Davis, Congresswoman Susan Davis, and so I really felt well prepared in terms of understanding what is needed of a public servant. But what I think I – came as the biggest surprise is the lack of anonymity because I really didn’t anticipate most people knowing who their city council member is. But, you know, when I’m at the pharmacy or in line at the coffee shop, people know, people come up and talk to you. And I actually enjoy it but sometimes I don’t always look the best and so I’m sometimes a little bit surprised and a little ashamed. I wish I’d have shaved before I went and grabbed that cup of coffee.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s funny. Now I’d like to ask you some questions about the mayor’s budget cut package which was, of course, voted on earlier this week, approved. Why did you cast that vote in favor of the proposal which, of course, closed the $179 million budget gap the city was facing.
GLORIA: Well, I think a couple of reasons. Number one is, we didn’t have a lot of great options. You know, the easy, low-hanging fruit was taken away years ago and this council and this mayor were really left with a number of really unfortunate choices. And so the cuts that you saw were really the cuts that I thought we could do without harming the communities as – more than we already were by making them. You know, I think the mayor did a wonderful job of working collaboratively with the council. That kind of collaboration, I think, is what San Diegans expect from their city government, and he and the council were able to do that so you could see that we could come to some consensus on it. And, lastly, you know, this deficit that we’re dealing with is largely driven by the recession. About $124 million of the $179 million has to do directly with the recession, and the mayor’s logic is that it would not be fair to decimate city services when we anticipate that this is a short term event. You know, there’s already some indication that economics – indicators are going up. And if that’s the case, we really shouldn’t be in a position of permanently closing libraries, rec centers, if this time next year we could be in a better position. So we’ve bought ourselves some time, about 18 months, and what I’m encouraged by is that the mayor and the council have all indicated a willingness to begin the conversation – I mean, we’ve already started it in many ways but to complete, really, the conversation on structural forms so that we finally, once and for all, solve this budget problem.
CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, everyone has spoken, Councilman Gloria, about these being painful cuts.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder if you could give us some specifics of how these cuts are going to affect the third district.
GLORIA: There’ll be some effects, it’s true. Within Balboa Park, you know, we’ve lost a park ranger, the mounted patrols through the park are gone. You’re going to see streetway (sic) – or, median maintenance go away. There’s, you know, the grassy areas that are in between major streets like on University Avenue and Wabash in my district will not be maintained. Rolling brownouts of our fire stations are going to be particularly concerning in District 3 because we have a lot of calls for service. That means we have two double stations, and those are the stations identified for the rolling brownouts. So response times for emergency calls will be reduced.
GLORIA: So there will be some pretty significant impacts.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us again what the rolling brownouts mean.
GLORIA: Surely. There are double stations, so where there are more than one engine, and those are usually in places where there are lots of calls for service, and District 3 has some very busy fire stations. And those – We will be taking one of those double units out on a rotating basis and so, you know, when people call it may take a bit longer to get to them.
CAVANAUGH: Now critics say—I think you addressed that in part of your answer a little while ago. Critics say there are too many delays in payments and postponements of payments, one-time cost cutting measures in this package as opposed to the kinds of reforms that many people say San Diego really needs in order to get its fiscal house in order. Do you agree with that? Was the balance a bit too heavy on these delayed, deferred payments in order to close this budget gap?
GLORIA: I would disagree with that. You know, and I would – If this were not a function of the recession then that might be a fair criticism but the mayor’s proposal really is half-and-half. It’s a balanced approach. It’s about half one-time options and half structural reforms. And, again you go back to the fact that this is largely driven by the recession. $124 million of the $179 million problem that we addressed is directly attributable to the recession. And if next year, as things improve, hopefully, you know, I don’t believe I could look at my constituents and tell them that it was fair to shut down, you know, two libraries, a rec center when we actually are in receipt of more funds. Now that’s not to say that we don’t have a structural problem. We do. We have a pretty significant one. But the fact is, is that we have to address that more holistically and what we needed to really was to put in place a solution that will last the next 18 months so the council and the community can dialogue about the ways that we want to address the structural problem.
CAVANAUGH: Just a quick follow-up question there. If – You’ve mentioned that, a couple of times now, that this was recession driven, this budget problem we’re having, the bulk of it right now. The predictions that the next budget cycle is going to be facing a $77 million shortfall, do you think that that is not going to happen because the economy is going to pick up?
GLORIA: No, that’s a result of our structural deficit.
CAVANAUGH: Ahh, I see.
GLORIA: You know, I mean, but $77 is not $200 million.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, yes.
GLORIA: That’s not the $200 million that we’re looking at now. And, you know, some of – I think in the criticism of the one-time parts of the solution, they acknowledge – they don’t acknowledge that half of it was structural. I mean, if you get rid of the mounted patrols in Balboa Park, that’s not a cost that we’re going to experience going forward. If you get rid of the Harbor Patrol in Mission Bay, that’s not going to be a cost that we have going forward. But if you sweep some of the funds that we added, existing – some extra cash in, those are one-time monies. But, you know, when you say – when you know that we’re using that to make sure that we didn’t lay off any police officers or firefighters, I think most of my constituents would say that that’s the appropriate and prudent thing to do.
CAVANAUGH: Well, speaking of structural budget problems in the City of San Diego, a new report by the Citizens Fiscal Sustainability Task Force, that’s the task force made up of a group of the civic leaders and business leaders in San Diego, they point to the city workers’ pension benefits as the driving force behind the City’s budget problems. Now, do you agree with that?
GLORIA: Well, you know, I haven’t had an opportunity to read the report just yet and I – what I’ve read about in the media, though, I think doesn’t acknowledge the kinds of reductions that have already been put into place. And I don’t believe that the City has done a fair job of communicating with the public what we have done. We have moved from the pension program that most people are familiar with that has gotten us into trouble to now a high-bid program where – which includes a defined contribution component. We have cut the DROP interest rate in half. We are currently litigating the number of aspects of the pension program to reduce those costs. We put a hiring freeze in place. We’ve take a 6% pay cut from our employees. We’ve asked employees to pick up more of their pension related costs. So we have made substantial changes to the program, and there’ll probably be some more changes in the near future. What I think the group maybe didn’t get correct is they didn’t really acknowledge that some of that has been done. And I also think that some of the suggestions about really substantial cuts to city services are not appropriate and not reflective of what San Diegans want. This council has gone out to the community through the San Diego Speaks process and taken testimony from literally hundreds, it not thousands, of San Diegans about what they want to see. And all of them are asking for more services. They want more tree trimming, quicker police response times, more paving of their streets and roads. And that’s not what we’re doing. We have made substantial cuts into – in the city. And just a couple of quick stats, you know, in 2001 we had 15 customer service centers across the city; today we have none. We had, in 2001, 48 hours a week of library hours; this year, we’ll have 36. In 2001, if you called 911 in the City of San Diego, your call would have been picked up in 4 seconds; today it’ll be picked up in about 10 seconds. We have already seen substantial reductions in pension, in pay benefits, we’ve seen substantial reductions in services. We have to start talking about some other options if we want to keep the city pulled together.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria who represents the city’s 3rd District. And Councilman Gloria, there seems to be a line of bifurcation on the city council between the people who think that what we need to do is keep cutting our expenses and those who are entertaining the notion that we may need to add to our revenues. Now I know you support a trash fee as a source of new revenue, do you – That, in itself, is controversial but do you think that we need to start looking at new fees and taxes to actually increase the amount of money San Diego takes in?
GLORIA: We absolutely have to have revenue as a part of our overall longterm strategy of the structural reform. And that’s not to say that other components aren’t important. We have to continue to look at cuts and efficiencies, pension reform, fee increases, managed competition. All of these things combined with revenue should be a part of a holistic approach to changing the city’s problem, and going back to what I said before about solving this problem long term, permanently. But with – In terms of revenue, you know, I think plenty of people get elected telling voters what they want to hear. Very few of them ever have the courage to tell people what they need to know. And what they need to know is that by having trash collection paid for in the way that we currently do means that $54 million out of our city’s budget is going to trash collection. It could be used for something else. And actually what I would say is, I’m actually agnostic on the trash fee.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah.
GLORIA: I think that either everyone should pay or nobody should pay.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
GLORIA: But right now, when people say, well, you know, I don’t want to pay for trash, the fact is about half of San Diegans already do. I do. I live in a condominium complex; I pay for trash collection. Small businesses pay for trash collection. Apartment dwellers pay for trash collection. But it’s a subsidy that’s currently being provided by the City and when we’re looking at rolling brownouts for our fire stations, reductions in our police force, we have to add this in the conversation. And, ultimately, the voters will decide but, again, at the end of the day we owe it to the people of San Diego to inform them about our current circumstances and help them to make an informed decision.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think there are any services the city should not be doing, that it is doing now, in order to save money?
GLORIA: I – You know, I’d have to give that some more thought. Really, what I’m always faced with are constituents asking for more and it’s not surprising given the district that I represent. I have neighborhoods that are 100 years old that the city did not properly maintain over that century. I, again, have some folks with some pretty modest economic means who rely on the city. They need us to provide them rec center hours. If we shut down their library, my constituents are probably not in a position to go to Barnes & Noble. And so I think the city has a responsibility to provide services, if for no other reason than these modest people that I represent are taxpayers as well. And we owe them these services and I would hope that we can get to a position where we’re not reducing library hours but we’re expanding them, that we’re not taking away prevention programs in mid-city to divert youth into positive activities, that we’re expanding them. But that’s not where we’re at currently. We’re trying to hold the line as best we can at the moment. But this broader conversation would allow us to stop talking about what services we’re going to cut and start talking about how we’re going to invest in our neighborhoods more appropriately.
CAVANAUGH: Well, as part of the idea of cutting services or at least cutting costs, voters passed Prop C…
CAVANAUGH: …in 2006, about the idea of outsourcing city services at least involving managed competition to allow private businesses to bid for services that city workers do now, city departments. And you’ve joined other council members to impose conditions on outsourcing that weren’t part of the ballot measure. I wonder, some critics say that you’re working against the will of the voters. How would you characterize it?
GLORIA: I think I’m in lockstep with the voters because what they were promised was strong oversight of these contracts that are let out. And let’s start on a more fundamental basis. It’s important to note that by privatizing or contracting out a city service doesn’t mean that it doesn’t cost the city anything any longer. It just means we’re not paying city employees. So there’s still a cost to it. So we have to make sure that people understand that. The reduction will probably be somewhere on the order of 5 or 10% because of the overhead reduction. That said, you know, San Diego does not have a great history of concluding great contracts and whether that is our IT that we outsourced many years ago but never rebid in 30 years, to the debris clearing contracts from our 2007 fire, to contracts like the ticket guarantee with the Chargers. We have not done a very good job in this city of concluding good contracts and what this council has said is that we will have appropriate checks and balances and strong oversight and we’re not going to put anything out to bid, not library services, not trash collection, until we can say with certainty that the oversight is in place and that the taxpayers will not get bilked.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder if we could change direction for just a moment…
CAVANAUGH: …and talk a little bit about what you consider to be yours and the council’s big accomplishments this year.
GLORIA: Well, certainly, the budget, you know, has occupied a great deal of our time. And when you consider that we have done more budgets in this one year than any council’s ever done before, that we’ve closed the largest budget deficit in the city’s history relatively successfully, I think those are accomplishments we can be proud of. For me specifically, you know, I had the great honor of walking door to door every day for 18 months to get this job. And my constituents gave me very clear marching orders. They wanted me to focus on public safety and on infrastructure. And I think we’ve done a lot in my council district office to make some headway on that. For example, we have been able to reintroduce community relations officers through our police department back into our neighborhoods and these people, Maureen, are really important. They’re stationed in neighborhoods, they work with communities to help prevent crime. They’re a proactive approach to law enforcement and that’s helping us to maintain a relatively low crime rate in some of the neighborhoods that I represent. On the infrastructure side, we will be paving 60 miles of roads in Council District 3 this year. About half of the city’s road repair budget will be coming to the people of District 3, and that’s an acknowledgment of the fact that we haven’t done good by the people of District 3 for many, many years but we’re not starting to address the deferred maintenance problem in that community. And there’s lots of other things but I think those twin focuses of the public safety and infrastructure we’re making some headway on despite the difficult economic times. Despite the budget challenges, we’re making some progress, and I certainly appreciate my partners in the police department and our city streets division for helping make that happen.
CAVANAUGH: Let – Looking forward to 2010, I know that you voted to send out the downtown library…
CAVANAUGH: …construction project for bids but you say the thing you’re most nervous about is whether the project will secure all the private donations needed without using city money. Are you still nervous about that?
GLORIA: Well, you know, certainly with the economy as slow as it is, I don’t speak to any nonprofit who is really realizing the fundraising that they have had in the past. But that said, I thought it was important to vote to put this project out to bid as a sign that this council is prepared to do this project if the support is there. And what we need to do is encourage people to give, and I think people give to strength and when they see that this council is serious about this, that this mayor is serious about this, they will begin to start making contributions to make this happen. And, you know, we are a great city. We are a big city, we’re San Die – American’s ninth largest city, and there are a number of things we ought to have in this city as a sign of that, and I think this is one of them if for no other reason than we are projecting 90,000 people to move into downtown over the next number of years and if we don’t do this, I think future generations of San Diegans will look at this council and say, why didn’t you anticipate this? This will be the downtown branch library as well as the heart of our overall library system and I’m hopeful—and for anyone who’s listening, if you haven’t made a contribution yet, go, please contact the San Diego Library Foundation and make a contribution, large or small, all of it together, we can get this done and make a grand statement about what San Diego believes in terms of literacy, public spaces, public art. It could be something truly grand.
CAVANAUGH: What about the hiring for the subcontracting of the construction projects? There’s a move to take control of the hiring from the Central City Development Corporation (sic). What do you feel about that?
GLORIA: Well, I think that public tax dollars, San Diegan tax dollars, should be used to support local jobs. You know, as we have, you know, a large, growing unemployment rate, you know, somewhere north of 10%, we as a local government, I think, have a responsibility to try and put our own people back to work. And I think that that’s important to do particularly, again, as we use taxpayer dollars to do that.
CAVANAUGH: Some people characterize that as a grab for the unions.
GLORIA: Well, you know, I’m not necessarily interested in whether or not they have a union card or not, we’re just saying that people here locally, San Diegans, should be the ones that benefit if for no other reason than those people get their paycheck and then they spend it here and it’s, you know, it helps stimulate our local economy. There are a lot of reasons why local jobs are really important and I think that I have the responsibility, as an elected official, to make sure that we’re making the smartest decisions possible, and I think hiring locally is one of those smart decisions.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on to another construction project, the proposal to use public funds to build a new downtown Chargers stadium. Now of course that proposal is in its infancy but I wonder if you have thoughts on that.
GLORIA: Well, Maureen, you’re putting me in a very awkward position because my father is the world’s largest Charger fan. And my Christmas dinner could be very, very tense if I don’t answer the way he’d like. But, you know, as big of a fan as my father is of the Chargers, even he doesn’t believe a public subsidy is appropriate. And, you know, when you look at my council district and the priorities they gave me in terms of public safety and infrastructure, you know, I’m willing to listen to the Chargers but I need to know how that’s going to complement the goals that my constituents laid out for me. And maybe more importantly, you know, Maureen, as I’ve looked at this issue a bit, what’s come to my attention is the actual cost to attend a game. You know, to go is probably a minimum of two hundred bucks out of your pocket. And as I mentioned already, you know, my district has the lowest median income of all the council districts. And so if we apply that public subsidy, I’m not sure that my constituents are the ones that are actually be able to go and enjoy a game there. So we have a lot of discussing to do with the Chargers. I’m, again, willing to listen but in the list of priorities in our city I’m not sure that this one really bubbles up to the top. Again, I’m willing to listen to what the Chargers have to say, though.
CAVANAUGH: Everybody praised how the water conservation restrictions, the mandated water concentration restrictions worked in San Diego over the summertime. But I hear the city council is thinking of actually imposing a tiered rate system. Would you be in support of that?
GLORIA: Absolutely. Absolutely. Many other communities work it that way and it’s a way to really encourage additional conservation. And as we look to our long term challenges in this region, certainly water is among them but a tiered rate structure really allows the people that I represent, many of whom live in apartments and don’t have, you know, luscious lawns that they can reduce their water usage on, to be able to continue to provide the essential water use that they have and really price the water in a way that people who do have a lot of discretionary water use to make reductions. So I think it’s a wise way to go about doing that and I’m really hopeful that as we, you know, work through this water crisis that we can implement a tiered rate structure.
CAVANAUGH: And my final question to you, sir, is, you know, you have – you’ve got on the San Diego City Council at a very challenging time.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think that’s an understatement?
GLORIA: Yeah, I would think so, yes.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, you know, after you see the way the city works and the way the council works, is there anything that you would fundamentally change? Do you think the mayor and the council get along together pretty well or – How do you think the whole thing is operating?
GLORIA: I think better than most people understand. You know, I think there’s certainly a perception that, you know, not everything is going well at city hall but I have to disagree. I have wonderful colleagues. I have a terrific relationship with our mayor, who actually is a constituent of mine so that’s a good thing. But I think we’re getting along well if for no other reason than there aren’t a lot of great options left. You know, I’ll kind of end where I started. You know, the low-hanging fruit is gone and we’re really left with trying to, you know, right this ship with a small number of options. And when that happens, I think, you know, you kind of come together and find a way to solve problems. I think that’s what we’ve been trying to do, and I’m certainly there to do my part. I’m – You’re right, this is not a great time to serve. It’s easy to serve on a city council when times are good but it’s probably more important to have the right people there when times are tough. And I’m honored and privileged to be there during these difficult times.
CAVANAUGH: And what would be your wish for San Diego in the new year?
GLORIA: Oh, my gosh, so many things. You know, I – Really, to be honest, one of the things that I’d hope that we can talk about in the next year is about public transit. My district is very dependent on public transit. You might’ve paid attention recently, we were looking at eliminating a lot of transit service on Sundays, and on a go-forward basis we need to have a real bus public transit system in this city. And in the new year I hope that we can kind of galvanize the people to really ask and demand for a transit system that works and for a city that funds transit in a way that they mean it.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for talking with us.
GLORIA: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with San Diego City Councilman Todd Gloria, who represents the city’s 3rd District. You know, we’ve been speaking – well, it’s our attempt to speak with all the city councilmen. We’ve spoken with most of them already and you can hear all the interviews we’ve done already with San Diego City Council on our website at KPBS.org/TheseDays. You have been listening to These Days. Stay with us for hour two in just a few minutes here on KPBS.