Friday, December 18, 2009
GLORIA PENNER (Host): The City of San Diego faces a record budget deficit heading into 2010. This week the City Council voted to approve Mayor Sanders’ plan to cut the estimated $179 million debt. At the same time, a citizens’ task force comprised of business and community leaders released a report of its recommendations for cutting the budget. Vincent Mudd is chair of the task force. He described the task force’s plan for a sustainable way to rebuild the city’s budget.
VINCENT MUDD (Business Owner and Chair, Citizens’ Task Force): One thing we say in the report we’re very clear on is that all options should be on the table. Right now in San Diego what happens is if you tell people you have a proposed solution, usually what happens is someone will tell you why it won’t work. And then you’ll move onto the next issue and they’ll tell you why that won’t work. Eventually you end up in the exact same place, just like Groundhog Day. What we believe is that if we can get everyone together in a room and we say lets develop a cafeteria plan. Here are all the services we provide, here’s what they cost. You tell us as a city what do you want us to provide and what you’re willing to pay for. And once we run out of money to pay for it, we stop. And then anything else that we add to that list, the public will say yes, in fact we would like to pay for that service. That’s a sustainable way to build a budget. We may have to go backwards, break the way the city runs into a couple of pieces and build it back up, but build it back up structurally. I think the public will support that and I think what you’ll find is that the public will be very forgiving of what's happened in the past if they believe that you're going to take care of structurally resolving the problem right now and not take it into the future.
PENNER: In the interest of full disclosure, Vince Mudd is on KPBS’s Advisory Board and his company is an underwriter of this station. And joining me now to discuss the dueling plans to cut the budget is Ricky Young, government editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Welcome, Ricky.
RICKY YOUNG (San Diego Union-Tribune): Hi Gloria.
PENNER: Ok, you heard what Vince had to say. He said we have to break the way the city runs into a couple of pieces and build it back up structurally. What would it take to make that happen?
YOUNG: Well, the debate that’s going on is if I find some coins in my seat cushions, my couch cushions, should I use those to keep my Netflix membership going that I can't really afford, or should I call off that membership, or get a raise? Those would be the two ways to really, in a structural way, afford that membership as opposed to using the money in the seat cushion.
PENNER: Well the way I understand it, what it is is you only pay for those things you can afford to pay for. And you figure out what it is that the city absolutely must do, and then everything else should pay for itself.
YOUNG: Right. That again, to use another analogy, is like when we go to cut something out of the newspaper you find all the fans of Alley Oop, you know, a cartoon strip or a column. If you cut it, you find all the people who want to be reading that thing. It’s the same thing with the city budget. Everything you propose to cut brings a bunch of people to the podium to complain I want to keep my program.
PENNER: So how is it decided? What you're going to keep and what you're going to dump?
YOUNG: Well, what has been decided for now – and the city is being criticized for this – is we’ll go ahead and use the money we found in the seat cushion. That is to say we have a number of onetime things we’re going to do to try to close the gap. I mean they did make some cuts but what this panel is saying, that Vince chaired, is that they should do much more significant cuts and or raise revenue so you don’t have an ongoing problem. By using onetime things to solve the problem this time, the city has left itself with a projected deficit of $77 million next time they have to go through this.
PENNER: These are some important leaders in the community that are part of this task force, yet the mayor has distanced himself from that task force. How critical were they of what he’s done?
YOUNG: They had some pretty sharp words. Calling the budget balancing ‘gimmicks’ and this sort of thing. But this was a group that met for five months in secret. That sounds bad but I mean they were not subject to the open meetings laws and this sort of thing. The public couldn’t come and give any input. So it’s easy for them to say that the city should show political will and cut this, and raise that tax, but they don’t have to be accountable to the public. The mayor and the City Council do.
PENNER: So other than distancing himself from this task force, how else did he respond to what the task force had to say?
YOUNG: I think he took it under advisement.
PENNER: He did?
YOUNG: Yeah. And you may see some of this worked into future budget plans. But as you pointed out on the radio this morning, Gloria, this came out after the budget decision has been made.
PENNER: It did, that’s right. And yet we know that elected officials sometimes are asked to make dramatic, perhaps unpopular changes. I mean, when you cut favorite programs that’s unpopular. How can they do that if they're worried about reelection? We have a whole bunch of people on the City Council that are up for reelection.
YOUNG: We do. And that makes it very difficult either to cut programs or raise taxes. Even this panel made up of businessmen who aren’t responsible to the people was a little vague. They made recommendations like “immediate reduce at a minimum quantity and/or quality of services that the city provides.” Well which services? They didn’t necessarily specify because immediately that would make people have trouble with their report.
PENNER: So maybe they didn’t go far enough? Is that what you're saying? Or if they went far enough maybe nobody would want that report published.
YOUNG: I think that the solution to the problem that they're asking for a solution to – the ongoing structural issue with the city’s budget – is very, very difficult to get people to accept.
PENNER: Alright. Well the same day that the task force released its report, a new city commission also charged with looking at the fiscal management of the city had its first meeting. So now we have a commission and we have a task force. What does this mean? How many different groups are we going to have studying the city’s budget?
YOUNG: Well, you could have as many groups as you have perspectives. The task force is made up of business people and its perspective, which heavily suggested cuts to the city budget, they suggested a poison pill where if the mayor and the City Council can't get their act together they’ll just automatically be 1,500 people laid off from the city. They didn’t specify which 1,500 but they’d lay off 1,500 people. Now this new commission that you're talking about, the revenue and business competitiveness group, will actually meet in public. They were appointed by the city council, it’ll be a little more official, a little less backroom. And they seem to be leaning not so much toward the cuts, they say enough cuts have been made. They’re leaning more toward some revenue enhancements, which you and I might call tax increases.
PENNER: Thank you very much, Ricky Young.