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Donna Frye’s Parting Shot

— At the end of the year San Diego’s most independent-minded politician will be termed out of office. But San Diego city councilwoman Donna Frye gets one more swing of the bat before she is ousted from city hall. This comes on November 2nd when city residents vote on Proposition D, the half-cent sales tax increase that’s tied to financial reform.

Earlier this year, Frye’s “no” vote held up the city council’s effort to put a sales tax increase on the ballot. This was familiar ground for Donna Frye, who has been the lone dissenting vote in so many council actions. If those council votes had been trials she’d have hung the jury.

In the case of the sales tax, Frye wasn’t the only vote against it. But she was the only council member, among those who believed San Diego should ask voters for more revenue, who insisted the city also take a serious shot at reforming its structural budget problems. In the end, Frye got what she wanted: A proposed sales tax increase that is tied to changes in the way the city does business.

There are ten fiscal reforms that have to occur before the half-cent sales tax could take hold under Prop D. They include reducing the pensions of new fire fighters, reducing city retiree health care costs and allowing private companies to compete for work now done by city employees. It’s clear that most, if not all, of these reforms will require tough negotiations with municipal unions which often go nowhere and can take forever.

“If they take forever,” Frye responds, “then we will never see the sales tax increase. This is only a five-year proposed tax increase that runs out after seven years. If it takes five years to reform pension retiree health, you will only have two years of a sales tax increase.”

A coalition of Libertarians and Republicans (not including Mayor Jerry Sanders) has taken up arms against Proposition D. They say the city’s fiscal analysis of the reforms, that are tied to the sales tax increase, is vague to the point of being nutty. Frye says the reforms will save between $626,000 and $85 million a year. The reforms call for a “reduction” in retiree health care costs. But no one can say how big a reduction.

“It could be a penny or it could be up to $42 million on an annual basis,” Frye concedes. “But the idea here was to not just reduce it by a penny or a dollar.”

She adds, “I really do not believe that anyone could think that the mayor or the council or the city attorney or the city auditor or the independent budget analyst are going to say we’ve reduced retiree health care by a dollar so we’ve completed the reform. So I think there has to be a little more faith.”

Donna Frye speaks in a baritone voice that’s almost mannish and she has a warm personality that seems out of step with her fierce independence of mind. Politicians naturally contort their views to build coalitions and vote with their party caucus. Donna Frye, on the other hand, is a liberal Democrat who infuriated unions when she refused to support a moratorium on Wal-mart Supercenters in San Diego.

The stereotype of Donna Frye is that she’s a surfer chick. But there are two things about her that are very un-San Diegan. She does have faith in government while San Diegans are inherently distrustful of it. And she does believe the City of San Diego needs to raise taxes if it’s going to keep providing services that people want.

But San Diegans are cheap. This is a county that has refused to raise taxes for fire protection despite two deadly and devastating wildfire seasons. San Diego city voters have refused to raise the hotel tax even though it is paid, not by them, but by tourists.

Will voters agree to raise their sales tax a half-cent in return for $100 million in new revenues a year and the promise of financial reforms? I could hazard a guess but I prefer to wait and see.

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