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S.D. Faces Record Deficit, Council Slow To Respond

Audio

Aired 11/20/09

The City of San Diego will face a record budget deficit next year. The projected deficit, currently estimated to be over $179 million, will force the mayor and city council to make some of their toughest decisions since taking office. How will next June's primary election impact when and where the budget cuts are made?

GLORIA PENNER (Host): Periodically, we revisit the rocky road to a balanced and responsible San Diego City budget during these difficult times. And just a few months ago, there were dire warnings that residents of the city would be feeling the pain of cutbacks this year and now we’re hearing that a record-making $179 million budget deficit is expected for the next fiscal year and it’s time to figure out what to cut now. So, Ricky, the mayor has called on the San Diego City Council members to offer reductions in their department budgets. The response has been underwhelming. Why?

RICKY YOUNG (Governmental Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Well, this is the first of many dramas that’ll play out over the next several months, sort of an early battle lines being drawn, if you will. Or maybe not battles but, yeah, the mayor asked them to cut about $1.3 million out of the $9.4 million total budget that the eight-member city council controls just for its office staff, for its aides and to hold its meetings and this sort of thing. So far, what they’ve come forth with is $116,000 in cuts, well short of the $1.3 million. He had asked all departments to come up with cuts to their discretionary funds by October 30th so they’ve sort of missed the deadline on that. Now what’s disingenuous about the mayor setting a deadline for the city council on this issue is he has no real control over their budget so they can say whatever they want and that’s exactly what they did.

PENNER: So is this the modus operandi, would you say, Andrew, for the council, since they refused to take pay cuts, they refused to provide a winter homeless shelter, or to help the mayor impose a guide for city outsourcing onto labor unions.

DONOHUE: Well, I believe they have done the – I mean, they’re going to do the housing, the homeless shelter. That’s going to – that’s actually going to go into effect later in the – into winter. But, I mean, if I was a city council member, I would say the same thing to him. I mean, this is the fundamental issue when you don’t have a plan, you just throw out suggestions to everybody, tell them to make sacrifices, and you don’t tell them how you’re actually going to make things better. You see this with labor unions, you see this with business now, is that, you know, the mayor has no plan to fix this problem four years after he took office. And to – for him to go around and ask people to make this cut and that cut and this cut when they’re all a tiny drop in the bucket in a $200 million deficit, that’s – I mean, that’s a major problem because people don’t know what they’re getting and they don’t have any sort of real idea that there’s an end game. And if you do – if you actually put together a comprehensive plan that people understood that I make this sacrifice but so does that side, you’d have a much more, I think, you’d have a much more, you know, sincere plan.

PENNER: I know Ricky and JW want to get into this. Let me give our listeners just a chance because we’re running into a short timeframe here. What do you think? Do you think the city council should be offering some cuts in their budgets in order to help reduce the deficit that we are facing in the – in just a few months from now? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 895-KPBS. Ricky and then JW.

YOUNG: To his credit, the mayor is trying to put a plan together and part of that is he’s asked each of his departments to show him what a 27% cut in their discretionary funds looks like. He invited the council to participate and they didn’t.

DONOHUE: But that’s a pla…

YOUNG: But what you hear people say sometimes is that the council should show leadership on this issue by showing that they can cut their own budgets.

DONOHUE: What I’m talking about is a plan, a actual long term plan to stop the fact that we have to deal with a deficit every single year and we have to keep cutting every single year. There’s no doubt that they’re going to have to find a way to cut $200 million from this budget. What they haven’t been able to do in four-plus years is actually put together an idea of how you solve the city’s long term problem. I mean, we’ve been dealing with this for almost a decade now.

PENNER: JW.

AUGUST: I thought I voted for a strong mayor form of government. I must be confused about the whole thing. I mean, he has to go hat in hand to beg the city council? Who designed this machine that doesn’t seem to be working? If anything, we’re in worse shape than we were a couple of years ago.

PENNER: Are we at fault in that we voted for at least a temporary change in government where the mayor’s office is separate from the council’s office and the mayor doesn’t sit on the council anymore? And isn’t that coming up for a final vote this next year?

YOUNG: Yeah, the voters next year are deciding whether to extend the strong mayor form of government. Some of it does seem to be – seem like it’s being worked out on the fly and not necessarily in the most efficient way.

DONOHUE: I think one thing we’re learning that really the strong – a strong mayor form of government is designed by the personality that’s in office. Pete Wilson worked under the old plan, which was a strong manager form of government and he was a strong mayor. He did what he – He was a leader, he got people behind him and he brought them to conclusions that he wanted. Now, if you have a weak mayor in a weak mayor system then you have a weak mayor. If you have somebody who’s not leading in a strong mayor system then you still have a weak mayor system.

PENNER: So is the – is that phrase strong mayor, which appealed to San Diegans—they really liked it, they voted for it—a misnomer? It’s really not a strong mayor, it’s really a device by which the mayor is no longer part of the city council?

DONOHUE: That’s a great question. It actually is fundamentally, technically called a strong mayor/strong council system but the people who were putting together the 2004 ballot initiative knew that the city council was so unpopular that there was no way you could call it that.

PENNER: Okay. Let’s hear from Simon in Rancho Bernardo. Simon, you got in right under the deadline. Go ahead, Simon.

SIMON (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Yeah, I just feel really bad for, I mean, Mayor Jerry Sanders but the problem is, you know, he wants to cut all the department and like the previous caller, Christine, said, the poor lady wants to get her food stamps, she has to wait a month and you go talk to these people who work for the County or the City and they all say, well, it’s because of a shortage of workers. Same like DMV pretty much. You go wait like two hours and when you get there and say what’s going on, it’s like, oh, we don’t have enough staff. I know the DMV’s a California problem. But, you know, you go to these departments and they all blame it on a shortage of, you know, personnel and then now they want cut more issues. So the poor lady, in her case, she’ll probably have to wait earlier. In my case, I have to get some planning approved. It has taken over four months. I already called these like commissioners and inspectors, they say, oh, we don’t have any people to go around.

PENNER: Well, we’ve certainly heard that, haven’t we, JW? But some…

AUGUST: They used to – that – they didn’t have an excuse for their lousy service years ago but now they do. And I think that’s the upside of this.

PENNER: But somehow, despite an uncooperative council, maybe a mayor who is not showing leadership according to Andrew Donohue, city business is getting done. The city’s not in bankruptcy, fire and police departments are functioning…

AUGUST: Whoa.

PENNER: …our trash is being picked up, our – most libraries are open, not all hours but they are, so, you know, what accounts for the fact that the city is functioning, Andrew?

DONOHUE: I – I guess that’s your definition of what functioning is. Being not in bankruptcy to me is not a definition of functioning. I mean, first of all, being in bankruptcy would mean we’d actually be dealing with some of our problems and we’re still not actually doing that. So that’s first and foremost. Second, we’re actually going to be cutting police and fire for the first time really, you know, sincerely and openly so we’re going to see a decrease in our public safety. We’ve seen a steady, steady decline in our library hours over the last decade. So it may be – there may be services that it’s providing and there may be people working hard to do that but the level of services and the quality of services are severely declined from what they used to be and they’re going to be even worse after this round of budget cuts.

PENNER: JW.

AUGUST: Well, I was talking to Ricky about the B word. When are they going to again start talking realistically about bankruptcy?

DONOHUE: You know what’s interesting is I think it’s actually starting to happen. Before, it used to be on the fringe, it used to be sort of on the fringe of, you know, activists or people that were a little bit more outspoken, maybe Mike Aguirre or other people like that. Now it’s something that’s actually being discussed by the business establishment. The San Diego County taxpayers last month had a really informative…

YOUNG: Right.

DONOHUE: …breakfast where they had the judge from the Orange County bankruptcy and two other bankruptcy attorneys come in there and actually start laying out for people the real facts of it because there’s a lot of myths and misconceptions about it.

PENNER: Okay. JW.

AUGUST: Just one thing. If they bankrupt, could they get rid of the pension fund? That’s all I want to know. Who can tell me that?

DONOHUE: They’re – they…

YOUNG: Well, there’s a case up in Vallejo, California where that is – they’re – that is the issue at hand and it hasn’t been decided yet. Everybody’s watching to see what happens.

DONOHUE: But the judge – You know, Judge Ryan, who handled the Orange County bankruptcy, very clearly stated that any contract, regardless of what’s state law, when you enter into federal bankruptcy, any contract is on the table, so he was very clearly stating that pension benefits and pension contracts and all that sort of stuff would be on the table.

PENNER: Well, you’ve really made a lot of city workers nervous, especially those who are either in retirement or approaching retirement. Just last point here. We were warned that we would feel the pain this year. Have we felt the pain?

YOUNG: Well, I was thinking about that. You know, last year they had a $47 million deficit that turned into a $56 million deficit and bigger and bigger and bigger. And yet when you think back, what did they actually close? What impact was felt? It’s hard to come up with anything. I think they closed some community service centers where people could pay their bills or something like this but it’s…

PENNER: Okay, so if that’s the case then, because we’re really against the clock here, very quickly, Andrew, are residents feeling that the mayor and his team are crying wolf too often and they’re not taking the whole thing seriously?

DONOHUE: I would have a hard time speaking for all of San Diegans but I don’t know that there’s necessarily anything about crying wolf here. I mean, this is – these are cuts that happened slowly over time that may not be perceptible to all of us but not all of us rely on a city library on a Tuesday morning for our…

PENNER: Okay.

DONOHUE: …only internet access and resources.

PENNER: JW, you get the last 10 second word.

AUGUST: Well, it’s like Chinese water torture, drip, drip, drip, drip. That’s how it’s going to go for us.

PENNER: Okay, thank you very much, JW August, Andrew Donohue and Ricky Young. And if you’d like to leave your comment with us, go to our web page at KPBS.org/EditorsRoundtable. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

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