Dueling City Budget Plans: Mayor Vs. City Council
ALISON ST. JOHN: We've seen years of budget cuts at the city but this year the hit to city services is cutting closer to home than ever before. All Libraries and recre centers could be closed except for 2 days a week and alternating Saturdays under the mayor's plan..
Bob Kittle, director of news planning and content, KUSI
Andrew Donohue, editor of voiceofsandiego.org.
Alisa Barba, assignment editor, Fronteras project, NPR
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ST. JOHN: So we've seen years of budget cuts at the city, but this year, the hit to city services is cutting closer to home than ever before. All libraries and rec centers could be closed except for two days a week, and alternating Saturdays under the mayor's just recently released proposal. So Andrew, give us a sense here about the difference between the mayor's proposal, and the City Council's proposal.
DONAHUE: Sure, well, like the mayor like you said, would basically have currently the library hours all across the city, and half the hours of rec centers. So -- we have had a sort of slowly, steadily eroding budget over the last many years, but this is a real, real hit, and hit real hard, so the mayor is proposing that. The council has proposed $30 million in cuttings that deal with things like supply spending and things like this. So I think what we're going to see for the first time at least in my experience over the last decade is see a real conversation here before the actual budget hits the road between the council and between the mayor. Because in the past, you really just had the mayor pitch something, and the council made a few small tweaks here and there, and that was it. And so now we might actually see a lot bit more of a conversation.
ST. JOHN: So the council's proposal cut about 30 million, but the actual deficit to be closed is more than 50.
DONAHUE: Exactly of so it's not a complete vision. And I think we can't really compare them one against the other. Although I did see council member Kevin Falconer just before I came in say on twitter say that he thought that they could try to preserve the library cuts, and that he didn't believe that the councilman was actually for those. So it'll be interesting to see some of those traditional allies there on the council there and disagreement on that.
ST. JOHN: So bob, do you think the mayor is starting from that extreme position of shutting all the libraries except for a couple days a week to give himself a good negotiating position with the council. ?
KITTLE: Well, I think this is had his vision of cutting the billion, and the cuts are gonna be painful no matter where they come from. There is a strong sentiment on the council that they can find cuts elsewhere. Tony Young the city council president told me yesterday that he was pretty confident they could find aid way to preserve the library hours. But the council in its resolution did not identify the level of cuts as you mentioned, $57 million, that is needed. So I think it's going to be difficult. They may find that the brown outs which they voted to end in their resolution, and which the mayor has now ended primarily by browning out libraries and rec centers, and that they may find a different balance there, and the brownouts, perhaps they'll stay in some rower form 678 I'm not sure. But the truth is that neither the mayor nor the City Council has addressed the structural deficit, which is about $40 million, and it's really driven by rising perception costs. The ballot issue that the mayor wants for next year would go a long way toward eliminating that. But it's still gonna be rocky next year as well.
ST. JOHN: So Alisa, we haven't heard very much in the way of bad effects from the brownouts from the fire stations that we had. That seemed like a risky position last year in the budget cuts.
BARBA: There was some bad effects. I mean, there was an infant who died, and certainly that made a lot of publicity. And I think the brownouts, we're talking about the brownouts of course of the fire stations and fire trucks, and basically taking them off line for certain amounts of time, which increased the wait time if you called 911, they were hugely unpopular. But I think library cuts and rec center cuts will be hugely unpopular as well. And I think both these things are final he cutting to the quick of what's gonna hurt with -- how many times have we heard budget pain, budget deficit, all of these things that we're seeing on the city level, the state level, and the federal level, well, they're finally getting to the point where it's gonna hurt. And I agree with you though in your analysis where you think that the mayor is proposing something that he will ultimately have to back away from. But I think it's also to make the point to the City Council and to the city that, you know, we're gonna have to cut deep and it's gonna hurt.
ST. JOHN: We'd love to hear your reaction to these two proposals, so remember you can always join us here at the round table, by calling 1-888-895-5727. So now I know that council member Carl DeMaio immediately came out with a statement saying this is shocking that the libraries will be cut, but from his position, Andrew, do that think that's because he's putting more pressure on the mayor to reform the pensions?
DONAHUE: Yeah, I mean, he's come out -- very interesting, last week he came out sort of arm in arm with the mayor to release this pension proposal that bob had mentioned. This week he spent a good time really hammering the mayor. He actually said something to the effect of if I were actually in charge, these outsourcing programs that have been lingering now for four years would have been done in 60 days or something like that. So he's coming out really strong against the mayor. Who frankly at this point is vulnerable. Let's not forget this was a man who was elected in 2005 to take over a city that was a financial mess. And his job and his promise was to fix this, well, he's had six budgets now. We're still dealing with massive cuts, we're still dealing with a structural deficit, he has one budget left. So he is very much in jeopardy of not fulfilling that very basic promise of his entire administration.
ST. JOHN: Well, the mayor seems to be saying he's seeing light at the end of the tunnel, and this in 2012 he'll be able to balance the budget finally. He said this also in December in his state of the city speech, revenues rising and pension reforms kicking in, and that things would start getting better, but in the meantime it seems like pension payments every year are just going up and up. Do you really think that this is false hope.
DONAHUE: Well, I don't know exactly where the light at the end of the tunnel is, because like you said, there's still 40 million structurally there, and that's not an easy gap to bridge whatsoever, I think we haven't yet seen the numbers on how this future pension proposal is gonna actually affect budgets and how far it would actually go to bridging that gap, but there is a fundamental issue here. That is, we can bemoan these large pensions that many of the sort of upper echelon of the city employees are getting, but those have been proven to be constitutionally protected. So we gotta kinda suck it up and just deal with the fact that we're gonna have to pay for these, and we can, you know, hold press conferences and bemoan them, but they have been protected, and we're gonna have to find a way to deal with those, and at the same time provide some basic level of service to our residents here.
ST. JOHN: So it's easy for Carl DeMaio to say that the mayor should be doing more about pension, but the mayor is pretty much hands tied on that, except for the reform plan that is now on the table.
DONAHUE: The reform plan that they're together on, yeah.
ST. JOHN: That's right. We have a call from Point Loma from Josh who'd like to join us. Josh, go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: Oh, you're welcome. Good morning. I just wanted to make a couple quick points. Obviously with the budget deficit, a couple of ways that you close it obviously are either if you tax, raising the taxes or making severe cuts like what needs to be done now, but with that being said, when you compare fire station brownouts versus rec center and library hours, it's almost apples and oranges, you've got 911 situations, life and death versus -- you know, it is an essential part of the community, but that's another way to look at it. Anyway, I just wanted to bring up that point between the difference between the two.
ST. JOHN: Yes, thank you, Josh. Andrew?
DONAHUE: Yeah, this is boiling down to an issue of priorities, and I imagine a lot of people would be like Josh an say that the public safety issues are things that have to come first. What is curious is there are other areas of the budget that aren't really being discussed. The city gives 6.4 million dollars every year to about 70 different arts organizations, these cuts to parks and rec are about 6 or $7 million, so I do expect a little bit more of a conversation going forward, like we said, this isn't -- this isn't the end all be all, this is just sort of the kickoff, the proposal.
KITTLE: Well, I must say, Andrew, a conversation about ending the arts spending would not be a conversation, it would be a shouting match. Only because those are very influential people, and we've seen them come forward in the past to protect their share of the budget.
DONAHUE: And that's exactly why it hasn't been proposed because you don't have a vocal group like that for the rec centers, you don't have a vocal group like that for the libraries of I remember the first budget I ever covered, I believe in 2003, the mayor had proposed cutting to the arts and it was an amazing sort of window into civic participation. They packed the council chambers with people with stickers issue signs issue very influential people, and they got all their cuts reversed and they haven't been touched since. But these sort of could you tell uses do, if you look at what cuts to a library ownership a rec center, that's hurting a poor neighborhood disproportionately than it is a richer neighborhood, yet the arts organizations are still able to hold onto theirs.
THE COURT: So as we enter into this period of budget negotiations, do you think it's going to be a matter of which community group can shout the loudest?
DONAHUE: It always is.
ST. JOHN: Okay, well, there's a message there. Speaking of that $6 million you were talking about, the council is suggesting selling six million in real estate. Is that more or less than they sold last year? Are they quietly selling ream estate while we're not watching.
DONAHUE: I don't know exactly how many they did last year. They set about a plan a couple years ago to start dispatching some of this, but the important thing to realize and those are short term fixes. And any good governance advisor will tell you that you can't sell real estate just to cure your budget problems. Those are one time fixes. What we need is some sort of structural fix. The city is set up to spend more money than it actually takes in, selling real estate won't really deal with that.
ST. JOHN: Okay. Daniel from Clairemont is on the line. Thanks for calling, Daniel, go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: Well, I think one thing they need to do is get more volunteerism, the libraries could stay open if they were willing to let volunteers work the libraries. But that's kind of a shut out thing too maybe by the unions or whatever. But the biggest way we're gonna end the pension problem is if we right now, today or tomorrow, fire all the higher upper echelon people, then you don't have the average income coming out and coming back onto you. And that's the situation this we have. As long as we deep those people in office, they can make more money. When they make more money, their average retirement will be higher. We need to get rid of them, there's a lot of people that need work right now. And I'm sure they'll work for a lot less than these people.
ST. JOHN: Okay, Daniel. Thank you. Alisa, what's your comment?
BARBA: Yeah, unfortunately i think there's unions, and there's a lot of rules about going ahead and firing people, it's an interesting proposal, but I don't think it would pass muster out there.
DONAHUE: I do appreciate Daniel always has a plan. You gotta give him credit for that. You can criticize, but he comes up with some sort of plan.
BARBA: I'm sorry, and if you look at Sanders' plan just speaking to what Andrew was saying, these are one time fixes. I think virtually what 60, 70 percent of his budget proposal are one time fixes, and he is looking, the light at the end of his tunnel is $40 million deficit in 2013, his last year in office.
DONAHUE: And he wasn't gonna be the guy who was gonna resort to the one time fixes or the same old budget gizmos of previous year best of your recollection that's what we've seen for the last six years, and so it is like you said, you're coming very perilously close to exiting office without having solved this problem.
ST. JOHN: Well, he has cut the number of public employees at the city from about 11.5 million -- not million. Thousand.
DONAHUE: That would be a bloated bureaucracy.
ST. JOHN: To just under 10000. And now I gather there's a proposal to put in mandatory furlough days, which I don't believe the City of San Diego has done yet, whereas many other cities around the region have done, isn't that right.
DONAHUE: I'm not sure if they've actually done fur hoes before, but that is one thing that the council is talking about, to go back to the well, hours, libraries and parks and rec have always been the areas where mayors look to cut. They are sort of the biggest piece of the budget besides public safety. If you look at where our library hours were in 2000, it was more than 50-hours a week per library branch, that would be 18 and a half now. So libraries have really born the brunt of our decade long budget problems here.
ST. JOHN: I guess what I don't quite understand is if last year the libraries were preserved and the fire stations were -- some of them were browned out, you're right, a Alisa, there was the incident of the child who swallowed the marble. But we haven't seen anything that you would have thought politically change the dynamic so dramatically, but now you say we're gonna restore the fire stations and cut the libraries.
KITTLE: Well, the mayor was rather obstinate about keeping the brown outs. But I think he recognized, number one, there were no votes on the council for keeping the brownouts, if there was any alternative. But I think he shifted because of the weight of public opinion and the weight of the council saying this is unacceptable, and you can certainly make the argument as some of our callers have, that public safety should be the top priority of government. So that's not where you should be cutting.
DONAHUE: And I think actually that event with the toddler was a huge deal. That was sort of the impetus to sort of get Prop D together and get that on the ballot. Obviously that failed miserably, but that was really I think the fire that was driving everybody after that.
BARBA: Yeah, and I think people essentially don't pay attention to all of this. They don't pay attention to the cuts that happen until it actually affects them. When the toddler died and all the press attention, and people said, what? You brown be out my fire station in don't do that. Then I think the same thing, frankly, the priorities may be different, public safety is definitely of higher concern you about when people realize they can only go to their public library on Tuesday and Wednesday, and they begin to realize that something has fundamentally changed in their community, because libraries are a central focal point of every small little community in our city, and just about everywhere, and when people realize that those cuts are happening that accounts quality of life on many different levels, and I think people will react to that.
ST. JOHN: Okay. We've come to the end of this segment. Speaking of fundamental change, coming about after the break we're gonna be talking about the debate over the federal budget, which of course affects all of us, including those of us living right here in San Diego. So stay with us for that debate, coming up next here on KPBS.