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Explaining San Diego's 2015 Budget With Cartoons And Games

Explaining San Diego's 2015 Budget With Cartoons And Games

What would you change about the city budget? Click here to play.
Explaining San Diego’s 2015 Budget With Cartoons And Games
Next week, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer will unveil his proposal for the city's Fiscal Year 2015 budget.

Next week, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer will unveil his proposal for the city's Fiscal Year 2015 budget. The budget gives a blueprint of how much the city will spend on many of the programs San Diegans care about, from street repair to homeless services to public art, so this proposal is a pretty big deal.


But the budget can also be indecipherably dense—last year it was more than 1,800 pages long. Enter the KPBS Budget Game. This online application lets you choose what you'd spend money on and what you'd cut to give a small sense of the decisions that go into crafting the annual city budget. You can play the game here.

Mary Lewis, the chief financial officer for the city of San Diego, stresses that the budget process is not quite as simple as the KPBS game.

"It's not as if we start fresh and can move money around in every direction," she said. "Especially when you look at a capital budget, you can't just move money around. It is identified and restricted for a certain purpose."

How The Budget Is Crafted

The 1,800-page budget would be a long book to write every year. Luckily, the city doesn't have to start from scratch, Lewis said.


"We do build on a base, but we take out one-time revenues and one-time expenditures and we look again at what the priorities are for the coming year," she said.

About 70 percent of the city's budget is spent on labor, meaning wages, benefits and other costs for city workers like police, firefighters and librarians, Lewis said.

That part of the budget usually stays about the same from year to year, especially after city employees agreed to a five-year labor contract last summer.

"A big chunk of the cost for the city rolls forward because you have 10,000 employees," Lewis said. "They have labor agreements, known costs, the city negotiated a five-year pensionable pay freeze and really stabilized labor costs."

The rest of the budget is more in flux. Each year the capital needs budget is "built from the ground up" to pay for things like fixing buildings, streets and sidewalks, Lewis said. There are also yearly changes surrounding new contracts, community planning updates and other new expenses like homeless services and parks.

City of San Diego Budget Process
The process by which the city of San Diego's annual budget is created.
To view PDF files, download Acrobat Reader.

Budget Timeline

Drafting the new budget started back in September. The first step was to release a five-year outlook on the city's finances to give an estimate of how much money the city has to spend. Then individual city departments come up with their "wish lists" of things they'd like funded. City council members also create memos of what they'd like to spend money on in the coming year.

Then a team of city staff works with the mayor to create a budget proposal that attempts to keep everyone happy.

"There are many more asks, many more requests than what there's revenue for, so based on what the council has prioritized, what the mayor has prioritized, and what the executive team has reviewed, we put together a list of recommendations for the mayor to take a look at," Lewis said.

Gloria To Faulconer

This year, the complicated budget process was made even more complex because of the transition from interim Mayor Todd Gloria to Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

But Lewis said the city was prepared to handle it.

"We worked through the process, knowing there would be a transition, and then we were ready when the mayor was sworn in early March," she said.

After Faulconer's budget proposal is released, the Independent Budget Analyst will review it and then the City Council will hold hearings on each department's budget. The City Council will also hold public hearings on May 21 and June 9 to get San Diegans' input on the city's spending plan.

Faulconer will then issue a revised budget, which will go to the City Council for a vote. A final budget must be adopted by June 15.