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Council President Hueso Discusses Budget Cuts, Water Conservation, SDG&E

Council President Hueso Discusses Budget Cuts, Water Conservation, SDG&E
How will the City of San Diego be affected by the state budget cuts? Why did the City Council vote in favor of SDG&E's Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan? We speak to City Council President Ben Hueso about the budget cuts, SDG&E's controversial plan, and reducing local water consumption.

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.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego City officials have been holding their breath in recent days, waiting to hear exactly how much money the state budget deal will siphon off from local communities. The deal as signed by the governor this week is a little better than first proposed, but it's complicated and its full impact on San Diego's budget is still unclear. Trying to figure out what the state is doing is just one of the issues facing the San Diego City Council. The Council has just passed a resolution in favor of SDG&E's Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan during high-fire-risk weather conditions. And, just as we're getting used to the restrictions on outdoor water use, the City Council is beginning to explore a new tiered water rate structure to encourage more conservation. With me to discuss these issues is my guest San Diego City Council president, representing District 8, Ben Hueso. And welcome back, Ben, to These Days.


BEN HUESO (San Diego City Council President & Representative for District 8): Thank you, and thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now if you have a question for Council president Hueso on the city budget or another issue, please do give us a call. The number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Well, I know that it’s early days and I know that the budget deal just went through but do you know what kind of cuts San Diego will have to face as a result of that recent budget deficit deal?

HUESO: Well, this – these cuts that the state is proposing come on the cusp of over $64 million that we cut from our budget this year, which was one of the largest cuts in our city’s history and we accomplished it without affecting services or the reduction of services to San Diegans, and we’re very, very proud of that. The state came in and asked us to cut an additional $95 million and this comes when, you know, we expect, to keep our local government going, we expect that we should be receiving close to $90 million a year to keep up with the increase in cost, the increase in providing services to the citizens of San Diego. So when you couple the lack of growth with the reductions that we’ve had and the additional $95 million that the state is asking, we’re talking about an enormous impact to city services that we’re going to have to sit down and resolve internally. But we are looking at about $60 million of that is from redevelopment so we’re going to have to interrupt some projects that we had in the works for almost three years, some maybe longer than that. We have another $35 million that’s coming from property tax, so this is money that goes directly into our general fund to provide police services, fire services, and so $35 million from our general fund is an enormous amount of money. So we’re going to have to reevaluate what we’re going to have to do in our budget to keep our city services going.

CAVANAUGH: Mayor Jerry Sanders says that public safety cuts may be in the offing. Do you see that happening?

HUESO: Well, one of the things we promised our employees, because the economy is so bad and we did achieve enormous reductions in salary and pay benefit – salary benefits and pay that we would really try not to cut anybody’s position. We have been doing that for three straight years since I’ve been on the council and we can’t really afford to put people on the streets right now when unemployment rates are rising.


CAVANAUGH: So where do you see this money coming from? Do you have any idea which programs or services are most likely to be affected by these cuts?

HUESO: Well, we normally don’t rush to conclusions in terms of identifying what we’re going to do in this budget cycle. We didn’t do that last year when we knew we had about $64 million that went up considerably after that. We understand that the governor still hasn’t balanced the budget at the state level, so there may be additional impacts to transportation projects that affect our city. So we’re going to look at where this specific pots of money that go into the general fund, what’s most hurt. We’re going to see how we can trim a additional $35 million. It’s going to be very, very difficult but I can’t guarantee that we’re not going to be able to reduce services to the citizens of San Diego with $35 million. That’s just an enormous amount of money.

CAVANAUGH: So do you see an actual – Are you opening up the budget again to revise it?

HUESO: We have to, absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: What other options does San Diego have? I know that there’s some local officials are talking about filing a lawsuit against the state, trying to stop them from taking the money or getting the money back. Is that an option that might be on the table here?

HUESO: It is an option that may have long term effects. The problem is, you know, we would be suing the state for money that isn’t there so even if we won the lawsuit, like a lawsuit that the California Redevelopment Association filed against the state and prevailed, the money’s not there. So it doesn’t seem like a lawsuit to the state is necessarily going to put money into our budget this year so we are going to have to go back and make cuts and, hopefully, any challenges to the budget decisions that prevail in the future will help us recover money for future years from the state.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as you mentioned just a minute ago, there is speculation that the state budget cutting is not finished, that Sacramento may have to go back and revise the budget again in a few months because there weren’t enough long term fixes in the current budget deal. What are your thoughts on that? Can San Diego plan ahead for the possibility of even more cuts from the state?

HUESO: I think we should. And it’s every indication, the way they passed they passed this budget, is that they kicked the can down the road. They – This isn’t a budget that makes any sense in terms of the available funds and, you know, what we have to do, get a budget that’s fully balanced. It’s – You’re right. There is – there are cuts that still need to be made and we have to, like I mentioned earlier, take that into consideration when we’re making these cuts in our budget.

CAVANAUGH: And one last question about the budget, if I may. I know that you don’t want to speculate on what exact cuts may be made because you all have to think about that but do you see that there’s any big difference emerging between the mayor and the majority on the city council about what areas need to be cut or the way these cuts need to be made?

HUESO: Well, we had probably one of the best budget processes ever when Councilmember Tony Young, our budget chair, really involved the community in the decision making process. I believe we really have to take our budget to the residents of the City of San Diego. They are the ones that are most affected by this, and our decisions have to – I mean, we have to resolve this as a community, all together looking at our options and trying to keep our priorities intact. And we need the San Diegans to come forward and do their homework a little bit. This is a time when we need San Diegans to be good citizens and participate in this process because we need their help in coming to a conclusion as to identifying San Diego’s priorities.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with San Diego City Council president Ben Hueso, and I want to move on, if I may, to the resolution that the city council passed in support of SDG&E’s Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan. I want to remind our listeners, though, we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. So, Ben, the city council did pass a resolution supporting SDG&E’s plan that they’re going to cut off power in the back country during extreme weather conditions that could lead to a wildfire. And I – And you voted in favor of that resolution and I wonder why you voted for this plan? It’s rather controversial.

HUESO: It’s controversial because there’ll be interruption of services and I want to remind people, in terms of what happens when there’s a fire, there’s an interruption of services. We can prevent a fire by interrupting service and preempt the fire. It is an inconvenience to people who live in areas that have a high probability of fires during very, very specific weather conditions, what are – which are similar to red flag conditions, which are very, very dry heat, very, very high temperature, and very low humidity. And under those circumstances, that’s when we’re most inclined to get fires. SDG (sic) has come up with a plan. They’re probably the only people coming up with a plan. And we need some leadership on this issue. We need somebody to come forward. We need the school districts, we need the water districts, we need the county government to all be part of a solution. So far, SDG&E has presented their plan. It’s a reasonable plan. Is it – Does it provide some inconveniences to the people that live in those zones? Yes, it does. And it’s unfortunate that they will be inconvenienced but we have to find ways to prevent fires. It’s costing the taxpayers an enormous amount of money, it’s costing property owners a enormous amount of money, it’s affecting our state’s economy, it’s putting people out of work, it’s causing businesses to absorb an enormous amount of liability and we have to do something. We need a solution and we’ve had numerous fires in this decade and so far we haven’t really seen government responding to resolve the problem.

CAVANAUGH: Now the critics of the plan say, you know, this could be an option but this particular plan hasn’t been thought through. There are a lot of people, people who need that electricity because they need medical equipment and so forth, that the poor people who can’t afford their own generators are going to be very inconvenienced by this. And they also say that SDG&E, it’s their plan because they want to shift the responsibility away from SDG&E if there’s another wildfire. Now do you think that this plan really does need some revisions to really make it workable?

HUESO: I think – I think we need to put a plan on the table. It’s still revisable. People can come forward and present solutions. It’s not a final plan that’s etched in stone. People can participate in this process and tell us why this plan is flawed but they also have to present solutions. We need to work together, as I was mentioning earlier. Is it a perfect plan? There probably are no perfect plans that are going to cover every instance and every possible instance of what causes a fire in the continuum of all the possible events that can contribute to a fire. But we have had fires that were – have been caused by weather conditions in combination with power lines. SDG&E doesn’t—and they are very public about the fact that they do want to reduce their liability as a company because every time there’s a fire, of course, they’re sued and their equipment is damaged and people’s lives are hurt. They’re very public about that. But to the other extent, they also recognize that something needs to be done for the public. So it’s a situation where we heard testimony from everybody that came to the podium and everybody was right. There is going to be an interruption of services, there’s going to be an inconvenience, but that, by no means, prevents us, in the event that there is a fire caused by these conditions and SDG&E does follow through with the plan and there’s still a fire, that doesn’t prevent anyone from the public or even the City of San Diego from suing SDG&E or seeking remedies to damages that we have as a result of their inability to take care of their end of the bargain, to provide electricity to our region. So it’s – it’s a very tough situation but I asked all the agencies that came forward to oppose the plan to sit down and talk to SDG&E and create a solution. Let’s all work together. Nobody has been working toward resolving the problems of what causes fires in the unincorporated areas but I feel a responsibility not only to advocate for the people in the unincorporated areas but primarily for the people of San Diego, which are the taxpayers that are funding fire services for unincorporated areas. San Diegans pay the majority of services, of police and fire services, in unincorporated areas. We’re subsidizing services outside of our city. And when people outside of our city are not taking this issue seriously by coming up with a plan that’s going to prevent fires from coming into San Diego, that’s going to prevent fire fighters from San Diego going into their community to help them, to assist them to put out fires, I feel compelled to try to step in and support a plan that’s going to accomplish that.

CAVANAUGH: We have a couple of callers on the line, Ben. I’m speaking with San Diego City Council president Ben Hueso, and I want to take a call now from David in Julian. Good morning, David. Welcome to These Days.

DAVID (Caller, Julian): Good morning. Thank you for my call, and I’ll try to be less emotional about this. I’ve been living in the back country for 30 years. I have almost been a close observer to some of the fires. 1989 fire Thing Valley Road, probably manmade, the weather was good. In the late 1990s, fires in S-2, almost all of them were manmade. We had one lightning strike and it was put out by a local. Almost all the fires in the back country were manmade so by punishing—which, literally, is an appropriate statement to make—people in the back country, cutting their electricity off, which is all negative connotation of the viewpoint of the presenter of the issue today, is contrary to what the back country locals would not want.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Well, David, thank you for your thoughts on this. And I want to take another call right away because Cathy in Pacific Beach has another take on this. Cathy, good morning, and welcome to These Days.

CATHY (Caller, Pacific Beach): Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to just kind of put out a point. If the electricity is turned off in the back country to these people that need it and they have gone out and bought generators to replace that energy and electricity and they’ve had to store a lot of flammable fuel on their property in order to keep these generators running, doesn’t it present as great a risk or greater for a fire in the back country during extreme weather conditions just by storing this fuel and, you know, for use in a generator? And, you know, aren’t there other solutions like, I know this is a huge issue or a problem because, you know, maybe undergrounding the lines so that they’re no longer a fire danger?

CAVANAUGH: Cathy, thank you so much for your comments. I think we’re getting a flavor of the kinds of information that the city council received when you considered this resolution. It seems that there’s a way to go before there’s any kind of unanimity on this, Ben.

HUESO: Absolutely. And all those are very valid concerns. And we’re asking that members of the public who live in the zones that are affected to really become educated on this issue so that if they choose, if they need to rely on a generator for power, that they take those issues into consideration. There are many different ways to generate power or to keep life support systems or important life-saving support issues, systems, as I mentioned earlier, it’s important to find all the possible ways that they can prepare for emergencies. All San Diegans are asked to find ways in their own homes to survive for a 72 hour period. These outages are consistent with that law that allows an interruption of services for 72 hours. Everyone in San Diego needs to be prepared for emergencies, whatever they are. And that will – would mean an interruption of water and power and gas services, and we all have to consider that possibility. Of course, we’re asking people in certain zones of San Diego County to make adjustments in their lives that are – where they’re more inclined to have services interrupted so, unfortunately, it’s a product of being in an environment that has a high likelihood of fire and we have to find ways to address and prevent fires in those regions because it’s costing people’s homes and lives and – and that’s definitely a higher consideration.

CAVANAUGH: I want to move on to new ideas about water conservation in San Diego but before I leave this topic, I did want to mention that I read that SDG&E held a fundraising event for you a few months ago, so I just wonder how you convince people your vote is not tainted by that kind of association when you vote to support the Emergency Power Shut-Off Plan that’s so controversial and is made by SDG&E?

HUESO: Well, you know, that’s unfortunate in our current system that we have to justify – Our contributions are public and I also received contributions from the opposite side. AT&T and Cox Communications were opposed to this. I didn’t – You know, if – that, you know, it – I had to really weigh this issue and I think the fact that I’ve come out and expressed my position publicly and, you know, the issues should be discussed on their merit based on why I’m supporting an issue, not necessarily who has contributed to my campaign. You’ll see that I received contributions, and quite recently, for my Assembly campaign, from both sides, so oftentimes you make decisions that affect one or the other and whatever position I make, I’ll be accused of favoring one side or the other because I receive a contribution. I’ll just tell you that’s not the case. I think SDG&E is taking a very responsible approach to this problem and I have – I have communicated with AT&T, Cox Communications, asked them, well, if you’re opposed to this plan, tell us what is a better plan. Let’s sit down and talk about how we can resolve this problem. I don’t necessarily want to hurt anybody in this decision. I want to make sure that we save lives and that we save property and that we save taxpayer dollars and – and I’m trying to – I’m trying to get to that end, not necessarily favor one side or the other. It’s not a question of supporting one side or the other at all.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego City Council president Ben Hueso is my guest, and we’re moving on now to water conservation. As I said in the opening, we’re just about used to, getting used to, this outdoor water conservation plan and you recently asked the city council to submit proposals for reducing water consumption, new ideas to promote conservation in – in – and I wonder, what is the motivation…

HUESO: Maureen.


HUESO: May I make one more statement…


HUESO: …regarding that last issue just to keep it fair on the record. I’m also a Coastal Commissioner…


HUESO: …and SDG&E did attempt to raise me money and they did contribute checks but I returned them, so actually I didn’t receive contributions from SDG&E and so…


HUESO: …technically, I voted against people that contributed to my campaign, not for them. So, I just also want to get that on the record. Those are the facts.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for clarifying that. I appreciate it. And about this water conservation plan, you’re looking for something more than this outdoor mandatory water restriction that we have going right now. What are some of the water conservation ideas that you’d like to see explored?

HUESO: Well, San Diego’s going to be having challenges with water for many years to come. We’re trying to create new sources of water for the region so that we don’t have to face shortages in the future or any interruptions in water service. We’re working on that currently and I think we’re making excellent progress but in the interim we need a plan that ‘s going to be fair for all San Diegans. Currently, we – we’ve been criticized in the past during the Pearl report, prior to me coming on the council, the council criticized the creating a very, very unfair water rates plan that favored businesses over – and – and taxed residents unequally. We need a plan that’s going to be – that provides equality in our region to make sure that some people that are already conserving water are not punished for being conservators and people that don’t conserve water are held to a lower standard. So I’m working on creating a tiered water rate that’s going to help be sure that everybody receives fair rates.

CAVANAUGH: Now, you know, some people are saying, well, we’re due to get an El Nino this year. Maybe we won’t have so much of a drought situation. Maybe there won’t be a need for water restrictions. What do you say to that?

HUESO: I say that bringing water to San Diego is very, very costly to taxpayers. We pay an enormous amount of money to pump water from the river delta in Sacramento. We bring water from the Colorado River and the river delta. We have aqueducts that line the state to bring water to San Diegans even in our heavy rain events. We’ve had heavy rain recently and we’ve had a lot of snow in the mountains. It’s – because of our population growth, it’s still not enough to sustain our water demands. We have to learn to conserve and we have to create our own sources of water here in San Diego so we can continue to thrive as a region. So there are a lot of things that we need to do to reduce our dependence on water.

CAVANAUGH: And a tiered water rate program, which would just – just to be clear, would mean that the biggest users of water would pay the highest rates.

HUESO: Yes, in proportion to the amount of people in a household. For example, if you have 10 people in the household, paying the same rate as a household of one person and they both consume the same amount of money – the same amount of water, I’m sorry, and you have the family of 8 has been conserving as much as they can, it’s unfair that we ask them to reduce to, let’s say, 20% and fine them for not doing that when the household of one person is using much more water and receiving the same consideration. I think we need to take into consideration the amount of people in the household and we have to also take into consideration how much water is being used primarily for irrigation where we have to encourage people to save on irrigating their yards.

CAVANAUGH: And there are some city council members who are quoted as saying they expect that tiered water rates will actually be a part of San Diego’s water rate structure within the year. Do you see enough support for that in the public and on the council to make that happen?

HUESO: I think if we involve the public, if the public sees that a plan that we come up with is fair and it meets San Diego’s needs and the public supports it, I think the council members will support it as well. But we have a lot of work to do in coming up with a plan that’s going to be fair. The whole point of this process is to conserve water and to develop a process that – where everybody is sharing equally in the solution.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I have to thank you so much for answering in depth so many of these questions. Thank you for being with us this morning.

HUESO: Thank you. Thanks for all your great work.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with San Diego City Council president, representing District 8, Ben Hueso. And These Days will continue here on KPBS in just a few minutes.