Sherri Lightner Discusses The City's Budget Deficit And Goals For 2010
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Our series of interviews with the members of the San Diego City Council continues this morning. We actually have a doubleheader. First, District 1 Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, and right after that I’ll be having a conversation with District 7 Councilwoman Marti Emerald. In this series of interviews, we’re discussing the challenges facing San Diego, the budget in particular, and hearing what the city’s elected officials think is the best course of action for San Diego. We’re also reintroducing the council members and their districts to our audience. My first guest today is District 1’s Sherri Lightner. And, Councilwoman Lightner, welcome to the program.
SHERRI LIGHTNER (District 1 Representative, San Diego City Council): Thank you very much for having me. It’s great to be here.
CAVANAUGH: Well, first of all, I’d like our listeners to know about the district you represent. What areas are included in the 1st District?
LIGHTNER: District 1 is quite large geographically. It’s the northern – well, it’s not quite the northernmost because District 5 is northernmost. But it does go up to the fairgrounds along the coast, it goes all the way over to I-15. It includes the communities of Penasquitos, Torrey Highlands, Carmel Valley, Del Mar Heights, parts of Del Mar, Torrey Pines, Torrey Hills, and University City and La Jolla.
CAVANAUGH: And how would you describe the district in terms of demographics and income?
LIGHTNER: District 1 is very well educated and very well employed.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right then. Now, prior to being elected to the city council, I know that you spent more than 10 years serving on the city planning commissions and boards in La Jolla. How did your experience as a community leader prepare you for your seat on the city council?
LIGHTNER: Well, it wasn't just my experience as a community leader – it was my background as an engineer. I worked 23 years professionally in private industry and then formed a small company with my husband for 10 years. That was during the time that I became very active in community affairs. I think that the experience in La Jolla was terrific in that I served on all sorts of committees including traffic, transportation, land use. I actually participated in the rewriting of the community plan. And have done lots of things with respect to parking, in particular, is a passion, testifying at the Coastal Commission and at city hall. Finding out how land use processes work at the city, and who to contact, when to contact, how to follow things through the city.
CAVANAUGH: Did you find that there was a difference, a transition, in being actually being an elected official, however?
CAVANAUGH: What was it?
LIGHTNER: It was one, I think, of the hardest lessons I had to learn. As a community activist, I could call up development services, I could call up neighborhood code compliance, I could call up anyone and get an answer from staff, providing me with direction, providing me with information. As a city council person, there is a charter provision that the city council member is not allowed to direct staff, none of them are. It’s a very important sort of limit line in responsibilities and in order to get the answers or to get action on certain things, it’s necessary to go through mayor’s staff.
CAVANAUGH: I see, so you can’t get your own staff to make those phone calls for you.
LIGHTNER: I can get – We have worked it out where my own staff can make these phone calls and intercede in that way but as a councilmember, I cannot take direct action like that.
CAVANAUGH: Interesting. So that would – Do you find that an impediment?
LIGHTNER: Not anymore. It was just a shocking experience the first time it happened. And to have someone claim that that might be a Brown Act violation was very concerning and so we did research what the parameters are for my staff to interact with city staff and at what level does it become such that we involve mayor’s staff directly.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with San Diego City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner. And let’s move on to the budget for 2010. You are among the majority of council members who voted to approve the mayor’s budget cut package. Those cuts are being made to cover a $197 million shortfall. And I wonder, what was the hardest part of the budget package for you to vote for?
LIGHTNER: I think the hardest part was dealing with how this will affect public safety and neighborhood services. And it was – In particular, we have the commitment not to release any of the sworn officers for – with respect to public safety and so police and firefighters have all been retained, those that are in sworn positions. Having to let go the civilian employees was very hard because they are very effective in what they do. I also have a concern because the lifeguards were cut and it does affect two beaches within my district and they are regional beaches, which will attract a lot of people. And once you no longer have the coverage on those beaches, you will pull from the adjacent beaches, which will have implications for La Jolla Shores beach as well as just the Torrey Pines area.
CAVANAUGH: I know that one of your campaign promises was not cutting money from public safety budgets, so I wonder what was your decision making process in actually supporting this package of budget cuts?
LIGHTNER: The cutting of the public safety personnel at this time isn’t – is still subject to meet and confer and so we do have a certain amount of time to try and find other revenues that might be helpful, to find other methodologies for financing some of the public safety individuals. I am very concerned about the brownouts and we’re working on that to make sure that the coverage is adequate.
CAVANAUGH: And the brownouts, you mean that plan to…
LIGHTNER: The rolling brownouts where the double houses in the City of San Diego—those are the fire stations which have an engine and a truck—will be cut down to one vehicle and that will rotate throughout the city.
CAVANAUGH: So there’s still a chance of, you think, of finding some money somewhere to restore some of the cuts that were in this package?
LIGHTNER: I’m always hopeful, and I have put forward some ideas for cost recovery action items. They might not be timely for FY ’10 but certainly if we look at them and start implementing some of these small changes, they may help us with FY ’11 budget.
CAVANAUGH: Are you satisfied we now know the full extent of the deficit that we’re facing?
CAVANAUGH: Why is that?
LIGHTNER: Part of our deficit relies so heavily on property taxes, transient occupancy taxes, and sales tax. And predicting that is a very difficult process. We have been wrong in the past, and I don’t think that we were that optimistic in the past. It seems as if the current economic climate is lingering for far longer than it should be. If it turns around then we will be better able to predict going forward what’s happening.
CAVANAUGH: Now, what do you see, Councilwoman Lightner, as the root cause of San Diego’s budget woes? Is it the recession or is it something more? Is it the – a structural – structural problems?
LIGHTNER: There’s actually a structural problem with San Diego’s budget situation. It was identified by the independent budget analyst several years ago. It is something that we need to work on. It is of grave concern. It is not something that we can put in place in two weeks, and I didn’t think that there would ever be any action taken on it until the council members who were in office up until 2008 did leave office. There was a lot of interest, I think, in keeping the status quo at that point in time. I think with the new council and the – especially with this new computer system that we’re getting online for monitoring the financial activity at the city, we’re getting better – in a better position to assess what we need to do going forward.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that new computer system, if you would, just a little bit. Nothing high tech. But what is it going to track?
LIGHTNER: It’s going to track all the finances of the city, is my understanding. It’s called – The program is called 1SD. It’s done through the SAP Company. And it will allow everyone – supposedly, everyone at every level to see what’s going on with the various departments. We’ll see if that actually happens. They’re implementing modules slowly and there are certain things that can and cannot be done because of the transition to this new system. It’s very labor intensive to make the transition but, hopefully, once it’s done, it will be very productive for the city.
CAVANAUGH: Some people who’ve analyzed the city’s budget process say that we constantly take in less money than we need, than we actually spend, that’s the structural problem. So is it – Would you support any idea of new fees or new taxes to actually increase the amount of money the City of San Diego takes in?
LIGHTNER: The fees that the City of San Diego charge should be cost recoverable and it is something that I brought up in my latest budget memo. The whole idea that we have alarms in the city of San Diego that require response, these are the burglar alarms on single family residence and commercial properties and, as well, any fire alarms are required response. We’re trying to get a handle on how many of those are actually false. The fire department does not do cost recovery on those false alarms. That’s a huge expenditure of resources to go to a false alarm. In our district, we have station 35 that has 25% of its alarms are false. It has a high volume of calls as well. And the same is true with the police department. They’re not necessarily cost recoverable at this time although they do have a process in place to try and recoup some of those monies.
CAVANAUGH: So how exactly would you do – could you charge someone for a false alarm?
CAVANAUGH: How would the police recover their costs?
LIGHTNER: Typically, it’s done through a fine and then they’re – you’re permitted to have so many false alarms before you actually have to get a new permit.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Okay.
LIGHTNER: To go through a new process to get a permit.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, and you see more of that within the structure of the city, being able to recover costs by charging more in fees?
LIGHTNER: It should be cost recoverable. As far as taxes go, that’s a vote of the people and that is something that I think the people in the city of San Diego have to feel that the city council is doing a good job with the money we are entrusted with right now. And I’m not sure that we’re quite there yet.
CAVANAUGH: And how about that perennial issue about garbage fees? Is that something that you could find – come under the cost recoverable idea that you came up with?
LIGHTNER: The so-called garbage fee or trash fee…
LIGHTNER: …is the result of the People’s Ordinance. In order to even consider that, it would require an action of the public.
CAVANAUGH: Well, there’s just one…
LIGHTNER: It’s not clear if that should be a fee or a tax either.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. The mayor’s budget task force issued an opinion that the City might want to consider bankruptcy as an option. Not – That was not just a clarion call but I wonder if you would – you think that bankruptcy is an option for San Diego?
LIGHTNER: I don’t know enough about bankruptcy. I know it’s something we haven’t explored. I think we need to get all the facts and all the options on the table and discuss it. And, hopefully, it will become clear what course to take. I’m not sure that a task force actually still is supporting that comment, though.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with San Diego City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner. She represents District 1 as part of our continuing conversation with the San Diego City Council members. And so, Councilwoman Lightner, your – how about working with your colleagues? You’ve formed some alliances on the council with Carl DeMaio. What are you working on together?
LIGHTNER: Carl DeMaio and I have two open space areas in – that we partner on. One is the San Dieguito River Valley Park, that’s a joint powers authority with the County and the State, and then also the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve Task Force, which had not met for three or four years, and they are working on open space restoration and linkages. That’s most of what I’ve worked with Carl on.
CAVANAUGH: And actually Councilman DeMaio was on the program last week and he was a strong advocate for outsourcing managed competition as a way of saving money for San Diego. What’s your feeling on that?
LIGHTNER: Managed competition is something that was voted on by the people of the city of San Diego as something they wanted to achieve. It’s something that I believe needs to be done very carefully and should not jeopardize either public safety or taxpayers’ money. The City of San Diego has already attempted forms of managed competition or outsourcing and has not done a real good job on coming out on top. These are things like the Kroll Report, Petco Park, Charger ticket guarantee, all of those are very, very high visibility items and one would think they would have been tracked very carefully to make sure that we were getting a very good deal there. It does make me nervous to think about some of the other things that might be put out for managed competition. Right now, managed competition is in negotiation to come up with how best to proceed with it. Outsourcing is something that could be done separately from managed competition.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Now there was an opinion written by City Attorney Jan Goldsmith recently that the City can outsource services provided by city departments without having those departments compete for the jobs. What’s your reaction to the Goldsmith opinion?
LIGHTNER: This is Mr. Goldsmith’s opinion based on the charter provisions. It is – outsourcing is a possibility, it’s still subject to meet and confer. It is still subject to council approval. It still would have some of the steps that would have been required in managed competition but it would not necessarily follow the same pattern…
LIGHTNER: …as managed competition.
CAVANAUGH: Would you like to see the city departments be able to put in a bid as well for those services that may be outsourced?
CAVANAUGH: Now, we’ve been hearing ideas, Councilwoman Lightner, for a lot of major construction projects downtown. We’ve been hearing about a new city hall, a new central library, perhaps even a new stadium for the Chargers. I’d like to get sort of your opinion on all of these projects.
LIGHTNER: One by one?
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, why not? We’ve got some time.
LIGHTNER: Okay. As you know, I didn’t vote to support either the city hall or the library project. The concerns there, I don’t believe that an adequate assessment was done on the cost benefits for the city hall project. With the library, there’s a lot of reliance on outside monies that aren’t in evidence. And I’m not sure that a main library is going to be something that is – well, it’s not needed necessarily downtown right now. We do need a downtown library that will serve the downtown residents. The monies, though, are not in evidence for completion of that project. As far as the Chargers stadium, the proposal that is going around now for downtown that first wasn’t going to cost anything, now it’s going to cost maybe – maybe taxpayers’ money, maybe not taxpayers’ money. I think that if the Chargers are successful in finding a piece of land that they want and they can pay for it and they can build their stadium, that’s well and good. The city does not have any money to contribute to that at this point in time. I wish them well because I’m a huge Charger fan and they are doing terrifically right now and they deserve the best but not at taxpayers’ expense.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I just want to pick up on one of the votes that you cast against putting out the library – the new library construction for bid. You are known as a big supporter of the libraries…
CAVANAUGH: …in San Diego and I think that was a surprising vote for a lot of people.
LIGHTNER: It wasn’t surprising for me. What was surprising for me was to find out that we were actually paying the person who would be the contractor on this contract if it were still a suitable cost to come up with a new estimate, that we were putting out $570,000 for someone to perform an estimate on a contract they were going to get, and we knew they were going to get it.
LIGHTNER: It was decided a long time ago, I guess, that this was the most competitive company to do the construction.
CAVANAUGH: So that’s why you cast that vote.
LIGHTNER: No, the reason I cast that vote is the money is not there to complete the project and I know that the Friends of the Library have worked very diligently to secure funds and pledges but that’s not money in the bank.
CAVANAUGH: You know, in your campaign, you mentioned ridding the city from influence by well-connected private interests, and I wonder what – now that you’re on the council, what do you feel you’ve accomplished towards that end?
LIGHTNER: Basically, I listen to my community and my community are the well-connected people that I care about and if they have concerns, I have concerns.
CAVANAUGH: I see. And the idea of ridding the city from the private interests that you said had maybe too much influence, is it a question of bringing more voices to the table?
LIGHTNER: Well, we would like to see people become more and more engaged in what goes on at city hall, and I think that’s a way of making sure that we don’t have very limited private interests controlling certain facets of our city.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder what you see as your and the city council’s greatest accomplishments this year.
LIGHTNER: This year, it’s definitely our two forays into the budget.
CAVANAUGH: And why do you say that’s an accomplishment?
LIGHTNER: We’re making progress to getting San Diego back on an even keel and I think the San Diego Speaks project was a very good one. I hope that we do the same sort of thing to look at the strong mayor form of government. I hope that with this new commission that’s starting today, we can actually expand our economic base in the City of San Diego. It is something that I ran on. I want to see we are a biotech/high tech hub in the world and I would like to see us expand that to the green and clean tech hub, to rely more on building businesses that support the whole spectrum of jobs all the way from manufacturer to the R&D side.
CAVANAUGH: And what is this new commission that’s starting today?
LIGHTNER: I don’t know the full name. It’s something that we formed during the budget hearings in the spring. And it’s the commission on revenue and, I think, business competitiveness. That’s as close as I get to the title of it but it is having to do with an audit of where the city’s revenues come from, how well are we doing in accounting for them, and then what sorts of ways could the City of San Diego become more competitive with respect to business.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Councilwoman Lightner, as we sort of wrap things up, what would you like to see happen for the City of San Diego in the next year?
LIGHTNER: I’d like to make real progress on our structural deficit, and I hope everyone in the city is healthy and happy.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s a wonderful thought. And having progress on the structural deficit, do you see that happening? I mean, how possible do you think that would be next year?
LIGHTNER: I’m not sure we can do it all in one year but I think we are committed to working on it and there are certain pieces that will be coming together, hopefully within the first quarter of next year. And as business – The business of the city is quite slow at times but it is very important to include the public in the discussion so, hopefully, with some – just the will to do it, we will make much more progress than in the past when I don’t even believe the will was there to pursue it.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for talking with us today. I really appreciate it.
LIGHTNER: Thanks for your time as well.
CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with District 1 representative San Diego City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner. And coming up, a conversation with San Diego City Councilwoman Marti Emerald as These Days continues here on KPBS.