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What Challenges Will New City Council Face In 2011?


The new city council will grapple with the same problems that have dogged San Diego for years: how to the cut the city's budget deficit without hurting public safety. We talk to KPBS Reporter Katie Orr about what the two new councilmembers bring to the table, and how they may impact budget decisions next year.

The new city council will grapple with the same problems that have dogged San Diego for years: how to the cut the city's budget deficit without hurting public safety. We talk to KPBS Reporter Katie Orr about what the two new councilmembers bring to the table, and how they may impact budget decisions next year.


Katie Orr, KPBS Metro Reporter

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

BROWN: Good morning, I'm Dwane Brown, Maureen Cavanaugh is off today, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A quick reminder, we will not be taking any phone calls on today's program. This morning we'll discuss the key challenges San Diego City Council faces in the new year, the council has two new machines and a new president. The faces may be changing but the issues remain the same at city hall, a massive budget deficit, uncertainty about paying for a new football stadium for the Chargers, and expanding the downtown convention center. KPBS metro reporter Katie Orr joins us this morning. She's been covering the ups and downs at city hall. Let's start with the mayor and city council. Do you think new blood at city hall will change the way things are done?

ORR: It could. Tony Young was just elected council president. He was elected with a unanimous vote. And he has said that there are gonna be changeless to the key the City Council meetings are run. He said that he is going to have a laser like focus on the issues. Young is seen as hay moderate council member and sometimes a swing vote. So it could be interesting to see how things play out, what items he dockets and how he votes on those item.

BROWN: So young considered moderate. What can you tell us about the political leanings of the two new members.

ORR: Sure, David Alvarez is a Democrat representing the city's eighth district. And he replaces outgoing or gone former council president ben Hueso who was elected to state assembly. And like Hueso, Alvarez is liberal. So there's probably not gonna be a whole lot of change there. I think what people are really looking at is the election of Laurie Zapf, she replaces councilman Donna Frye, who represented the sixth district. And whereas Donna Frye was sort of held up as a liberal champion in San Diego, Laurie Zapf is pretty conservative. So it'll be interesting to see how her presence on the council changes things.

BROWN: And that campaign, there's a lot of money spent in that one, wasn't there? Zapf.

ORR: Yeah, it was a very competitive campaign. Howard Wayne was running against her. You know, it was a big fight for that seat, and the Republicans saw it as one they really had a chance to win, and they did.

BROWN: Now, you mentioned the new council president, Tony Young. How might this -- the two new members affect his agenda?

ORR: Well, it'll be interesting to see. Like before I mentioned the partnerships that are formed. The Republicans are still in the minority. They have only have three on the council versus five Democrats. But that's one more seat than they had before. And one of the first things Laurie Zapf did at her very first meeting was join with councilman Carl DeMaio in presenting a measure. Butch there are some signs that she won't always partner with him. As I said, Tony Young is moderate, he can be a swing vote. Councilman Sherry Leitner is also sheen as somewhat of a swing vote sometimes. So just depending on the different issues and how they affect the different council districts. We could see some interesting alliances, I think.

BROWN: What do you think will be the biggest issue facing the council next year?

ORR: No question, it's gonna be the budget. The city's facing a $73 million budget gap in the coming year. And of course we all know, Prop D, the proposed sales tax increase failed by 60 percent. 60 percent of the voters voted against it. That would have generated $100-million a year in revenue for San Diego. So that's off the table. So now we're figuring out what to do next. And councilman Carl DeMaio has come out with an expensive plan that he says will save the city $1 billion over the next five years, it includes pay freezes and further reforms to the pension system 678 and the most controversial element would be eliminating retiree healthcare for city employees.

NEW SPEAKER(DEMAIO): I have discussed this with the city attorney, and he has informed me that he is confident that retiree healthcare reforms can be implemented and that we will prevail.

ORR: DeMaio believes that unlike pensions, retiree health care benefits are not vested, meaning that they can be taken away from employees. And along those lines, mayor Jerry Sanders is proposing completely eliminating the pension system for all nonpublic safety new hires.

NEW SPEAKER: The notion that all public employees should have a richer retirement benefit than all the tax payers they serve while they are also enjoying comparable pay and job security is thoroughly outdated.

BROWN: So Katie, if the mayor's plan requires voter approval to do this, what will the city do in the meantime to balance the budget.

ORR: Well, that's right. It does require voter approval. And I should say, that if is it did get approved, it wouldn't provide significant savings for decades because you have to cycle through all the current employees. It only accounts for new hires. So in the meantime, it's just -- we're gonna see a lot of budget cuts. There's a threat of cuts to public safety, and it'll be interesting to see how this plays out. Because several council people have come forward and said they won't vote to approve cuts to public safety. But public safety makes up half of the general fund budget. So it will be hard to close that $73 million without cutting into public safety. In other areas you're gonna see reduced park and rec hours, reduced library hours. The mayor says he'll come out with his final budget this spring. And he may talk a little bit about it in his state of city that's coming up in January.

BROWN: And of course we heard about all of these dire warnings about cuts to police service and fire in addition to what's already happened. And that of course was before voters turned down the half cent sales tack.

ORR: Right.

BROWN: I'm wondering, you know, coming in 2011, if I can count on fewer tickets.

ORR: Well, I don't know how many tickets you got in the past year. So -- but you know, public safety, the police chief says that's definitely a possibility. The mayor asked him, and this again was pre Prop D, and that was somewhat controversial that we were having these meetings before the vote. But the mayor has asked the police chief to come up with $16 million in cuts, potential cuts, the fire department had to list, I believe, it was about $7 million in cuts that they would make. And it would, for the police department, result in about a hundred and 62 fewer sworn officers in the force, possibly closing two police stations, the fire department says it would have to do more engine brown outs, idling more engines like bee do now. Of course this is if the full amount of cuts are taken. You know, it's possible that might not cut 60 million from the fire department, maybe they cut eight million or five million of or if these counsel members follow through, maybe they don't cut anything. But the threat is there.

BROWN: And all of this also is connected to what happens on the state level.

ORR: Uh-huh. Absolutely. It's all about -- excuse me, it's all about money and property taxes and the state has its own budget did he have kit that it is dealing with. Property tax revenues, and it's all connected.

BROWN: Yes, it is. Well, Katie, we know the city budget is a major issue of but there are several development projects in the work as well. What's the latest on the Chargers search for a new stadium?

ORR: Well, I think it's fair to say at this point it's just a lot of speculation. The Chargers have committed to playing in San Diego through 2011, but we don't even know if there's gonna be an NFL season in 2011 because they're having labor issues there. And after that, they haven't said. They haven't said, oh, we'll be here through 2012. Don't worry about a thing. There hasn't been any public progress on getting a stadium built downtown, and of course there are those stadium projects percolating in LA, which would require a team to play at them. So I think it's kind of at the wait and see point right now.

BROWN: Mayor Sanders wants to expand the downtown convention center. Is that going to happen.

ORR: It's in the works. An architect has been chosen for the plan of the center would include a massive roof top park, it would include a hotel. But it would also cost $710 million, and the backers of this plan are trying to come up with a way to finance it right now. Because it would be hard to do it without taxes or public vote. And we all know how people feel about paying more for stuff. No one likes to pay more taxes. And to top it off, San Diego is still paying for the last convention center expansion. We pay about $9 million a year for that. Of and there is a move among several council members lead we councilman Carl DeMaio, to call on CCDC, the downtown redevelopment organization, to start picking up the tab to pay for the previous expansion.

BROWN: So CCDC would possibly pick up the tab to expand the convention center. They still owe us for some other work downtown.

ORR: It's really interesting right now. CCDC's cap as we you will all know was lifted this spring through a state bill. So that essentially does away with the limit on how much money it can spend on downtown redevelopment. However, the revenues they get are department on property taxes, and more things be developed downtown. Of so CCDC says hey, we don't have this money right now. It's not like someone just gave us billions of dollars to spend on there's projects. Just the possibility is there. But people are already saying, we want you to pay for the previous expansion. Of course this stadium, that's a $500 million --

BROWN: Petco Park.

ORR: Ticket. Yeah, Petco Park. Pick up the bonds for that. So that'll be an interesting dynamic to see that CCDC actually does end up paying for. They're saying their money should go towards things like affordable housing, which is one of their requirements that they have to do downtown as well.

BROWN: Now, remind us about one of the other mayor's proposal. About redeveloping Balboa park. What does he want to do?

ORR: Yeah, the idea is to turn the Plaza De Panama in front of the art museum into a pedestrian zone. Right now, the Laurel street bridge goes into there, and it's basically a traffic circle. What they would like to do is divert the traffic from the Laurel Street bridge into a small parking lot sort of off to the side of the Plaza de Panama, and get the cars out of there, build a new parking garage, all of this. It would cost about $30 million, and they want to do it by 2015. That would be in time for the centennial of the Panama California exhibition. And a lot of people are excited about it. But there are people who are concerned. It requires building a bridge through a steep canyon this. There's an archery park on that canyon there now as well. The zoo is concerned about parking, there are some historians who are sort of concerned about what it would do to the park. So whether or not this will actually go forward is something we have to keep an eye on. I guess the first step is raising the $30 million.

BROWN: Now, you covered lots of stories on your metro beat over the past year. Is there anything that jumps out that's so memorable to you that you just keep telling again and again?

ORR: You know, I think it is the fire department brown outs. I did a lot of stuff with that earlier last spring when they actually happened. Including, I went along with a fire crew as they responded to a call. Talk about adrenalin. We were just standing in the fire station, sort of just chatting, all of a sudden the siren goes off, those guys take off running, jumping into the truck, I'm following along with my equipment. We're screaming down the street. I mean, it is really ark mazing to see what these firefighters actually are called on to do. And it just struck me as a really important story, because it's one of the things you really don't think about until will you have a fire, or you have a medical emergency and you need the fire department to come there. That's just one of the stories that stuck out to me, because San Diego is already under staffed when it comes to fire stations around the city, and of course no one wants to cut service to them. Nobody does. But we're faced with these hard financial realities, and the city has to make some tough choices, and that just sort of crystallized the issue for me.

BROWN: And part of the criticism of the local fire department is their response time rate compared to the national average, right?

ORR: Right. Their response time, you're supposed to get to 90 percent of the calls within five minutes. And that's not a raw, it's just a national standard that departments try to meet. And the San Diego fire department, does it about half the time. And they know that, and they're trying to improve that. They're doing a study right now, a deployment study, I believe to see where they should build more stations, how they can improve things but again, it all comes down to money. It's a massive undertaking to build more fire stations and now is certainly not the time when we've got a lot of money to spread around.

BROWN: Absolutely. We're about to wrap up this conversation. Of the mayor's theme for the state of the city address in January? Any idea?

ORR: Well, I think we'll probably hear a lot about the budget, a lot about how it's hard times. Maybe a little bit about how he hopes things are turning around, you know, the economy is bouncing back a little bit, government tends to lag behind the private sector. Hopefully better days are coming ahead, maybe some projects he'd like to see us work on in the next couple of years. It'll be an interesting speech. I'm curious to see what the tone is, you know, if it's hopeful, or if it's, you know, we're slogging through, and this'll get better. We'll see.

BROWN: KPBS metro reporter, Katie Orr. Thanks.

ORR: Thanks, Dwane.

BROWN: Coming up next on These Days, an encore edition with Maureen Cavanaugh. She'll discuss the challenges the medical community faces in fighting the debilitating nerve disease ALS.

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