S.D. Mayor Looks To Future With State Of The City Speech
GLORIA PENNER (Host): I’m Gloria Penner. I’m joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today we’ll have the editors’ opinions on what Mayor Jerry Sanders did and didn’t say in his State of the City speech on Wednesday, why San Diego’s permit fees to install solar panels are leaping from $93 to $565, and some local campaign stumping by U.S. Senate opponents Barbara Boxer and Carly Fiorina. The editors with me today are David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat. Good to see you again, David.
DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Great to be here. Thanks.
PENNER: Tom York, contributing editor for the San Diego Business Journal. Welcome back, Tom.
TOM YORK (Contributing Editor, San Diego Business Journal): Well, thanks for having me back.
PENNER: Of course. And Alisa Joyce Barba, western bureau chief for NPR News. Always good to see you, Alisa.
ALISA JOYCE BARBA (Western Bureau Chief, National Public Radio News): Morning, Gloria.
PENNER: Good morning. Our call in number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Well, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders gave his State of the City speech Wednesday night and, as predicted, city finances were at its center. In Wednesday’s San Diego Union-Tribune, columnist Michael Stetz bemoaned that in every State of the City speech for four years, the mayor has said San Diego faces major challenges. So, David, anything really different this time?
ROLLAND: Not really substantively, I don’t think. The major difference that I noticed was kind of a more confident tone about what the city has done and its place compared with several years, and its condition compared with several years ago. He – Sanders actually said that San Diego is now a model of fiscal reform, which, I think, may be stretching things a little bit but that’s the confident tone that I’m talking about.
PENNER: So you’re saying then that the challenges are still there, in fact, they’ve grown the longer he’s mayor but he tried to soften them?
ROLLAND: Yeah, I think he did and, you know, a State of the City address, let’s be honest, it’s required by law and it’s – honestly, it doesn’t have quite the impact as, say, a presidential State of the Union. You know, the stock market doesn’t rise and fall based on what he says and elections across the country aren’t impacted the way they might be with, you know, a president’s speech. So, you know, let’s put this speech, you know, it its rightful place. But, yeah, his job is to kind of make people sort of, I guess, feel good at least about the city’s ability to, you know, to face its challenges.
PENNER: Well, it’s true, Alisa, I mean, he did use some positive phrases such as the city’s incredible promise or tremendous promise. He uses the word vision, even optimism in some of his speeches. Compared to his speeches in the past, was this a more optimistic speech?
BARBA: You know, I think that tone of optimism, you know, runs through virtually all of San Diego’s politicians. They always do. I mean, it’s America’s Finest City no matter how bad it gets here. We’re still, you know, the sun’s still shining, it’s America’s Finest City. I think that he was emboldened in a sense because the city council went ahead and made a lot of the cuts that allowed him to come out with a better budget this year. I think he’s looking ahead at a huge, another $77 million deficit for next year and, you know, the sad truth is we’re looking at some cuts that are really going to – people are going to start feeling these cuts. I mean, they sound small but, you know, a cutback in library hours, people – I went to the library a few weeks ago and the library was closed. I think a lot of people are going to start saying, hey, what’s going on? You know, the maintenance in city parks and at city beaches, I mean, you know, you can say it but once you start feeling it then people are going to say, hey, this is really beginning to hurt. And then we’re looking at, next year, further cuts, we’re looking at what Sanders is calling really dealing with the structural deficit, this idea that we are continuing and planning to spend more than we take in. So we’re going to be looking at some really painful things and he, you know, he didn’t lay that out. He didn’t give us any details. There’s nothing to go on there, nothing to criticize him about.
PENNER: Yeah, David.
ROLLAND: Well, I was just going to say, I mean, Alisa talks about cuts, the city has thus far made the cuts not terribly painful. And a lot of Sanders’ critics will point out that the city – he and the city council together have used, you know, one-time pots of money to, you know, sort of paper over the mid-year deficit at least that we just – that they just addressed. So the critics are saying we still have a structural deficit in terms of how much money the city takes in in revenues and how much it spends in costs. There has been a structural deficit even before the recession came and made things worse with decreased tax revenues, and that he hasn’t done anything about that and now here he says in his speech, well, give me 18 months and I’ll give you – and I’ll come out with a plan. They say 18 months? You’ve been in office four years, I mean, what’s the delay here?
PENNER: Well, I think that’s the question that raised itself and before I ask you about that, Tom York, let me ask our listeners about that, if you heard the mayor’s speech or read the speech or read any analysis about it, what is your attitude toward the year ahead or the next two years ahead? $77 million is expected to be our deficit in the 2011 fiscal year. Are you concerned about that? Are you feeling the fact that the city, indeed, has cut certain city services? Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Let’s get back to the structural deficit. I mean, in any family you know that if you spend more than you take in, if you are earning money and you find that you have spent beyond what you earn, that it can be a disaster. In some cases, people actually have to declare bankruptcy. So even though the mayor rather eloquently, Tom, said we must live within our means and he’s giving himself 18 months to resolve this structural deficit, meaning taking in less than you’re spending, why so long? Why 18 months?
YORK: Well, I think the fact of the matter is that, you know, the chicanery of the previous decades that came home to roost here in the last three or four years and, you know, the mayor has struggled to sort of fix that problem especially in the area of the pensions. The pension deficits, or the unfunded liabilities, I should say, was huge and I think he’s done a fairly significant job. I would be a rooter in his camp on that. He’s done a fairly significant job. What surprises me is that the city hasn’t really gone through upheaval. I mean, he’s been papering over, plastering over, plugging holes here, plugging holes there, there’s not been a wholesale reform of the city government, city spending, you know, city tax structure.
PENNER: What would it take to have a wholesale reform?
YORK: I think it would take a recession that would be twice as impactful as the one we’ve – we’re suffering through right now.
PENNER: Well, let’s hope that doesn’t happen.
PENNER: That would not just be a recession if it was twice as impactful. It might be another Great Depression.
YORK: Well, I think that, you know, the mayor’s sort of been able to bite the bullet here so to speak and that things have not proven to be as bad as he predicted back two or three years ago. But I think there’s still significant problems ahead. The layoffs and the cutbacks that we’ve looked at are not, in my mind, that significant, and what happens, as it always happens is, you know, the services that people use the most are the ones that are hit the first.
PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Let’s hear now from Alex in Rancho Bernardo. Alex, you’re on with the editors.
ALEX (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Hi.
ALEX: Thanks for taking my call. I was actually going to wait for your next segment about the permit fees. You know, the problem that San Diego face pretty soon is lack of inspectors yet the permit fee keeps going up. For example, I have a establishment, food establishment, and our health permit fees have gone up from $150 two years ago to $300 to $600 for this year yet the last – and yet the amount of inspection has gone down to once six months. And I think this is going to, you know, impose a pretty dangerous situation. God forbid there’s something going on. Remember when we had the e. boli (sic) danger, you know, or water treatment and back then, luckily, we had enough inspectors to go around to the restaurants and coffee shops to tell us, hey, don’t use the water. We don’t have those inspectors anymore…
PENNER: Thank you.
ALEX: …yet we’re paying way, way more for inspectors that we’re not getting any inspection. So people need to look to – if you think, you know, like your guest said that there’s a lack of library hours, those are the visible side effects.
ALEX: And we definitely need to look at the invisible side effects, those invisible inspectors or, you know, permitting process…
ALEX: …that’s getting bypassed.
PENNER: Thank you so much, Alex, for pointing that out. David?
ROLLAND: Well, yeah, this is – He’s right that this is kind of unseen to most of the public. These are unseen cuts. And departments, city departments, have had to cut back and it’s sort of a circular thing where city departments have to cut back on things like inspectors, like he’s talking about, and then last year – I was going to follow up on something Tom was talking about in terms of, you know, what the mayor has done. Last year, they did sort of reassess fees for different services and how much it actually cost to provide these services and a lot of fees, I think, the average fee was raised about 17% or something like that. The cost of these services actually goes up in some cases because you have fewer people there doing the work and it takes longer and, you know, that ties back into the pensions and I know this is something that we were going to talk about, I think, with the solar fees in the next segment. But, yeah, that’s all part of it.
PENNER: But that’s kind of a scary thing that Alex brought up, however, the whole idea of health inspectors being cut and food that we eat that could, theoretically, make us very, very sick, if not kill us, not being inspected. That sounds like it’s a public health danger and I would think that’s something that we should all be paying attention to without question, and watching very carefully. Let’s hear what Annie in Golden Hill has to say now. By the way, Alex, thanks for your call. Annie, you’re on with the editors.
ANNIE (Caller, Golden Hill): Good morning. Thank you.
ANNIE: I was very upset earlier in the week when I saw on the news a piece about the city council’s benefits and pay and pension benefits that they receive considering that so many of us have lost our jobs or are severely unemployed and that city workers had – their benefits have been cut, in some instances their pay has been cut, that the city council does not participate in our suffering. They just don’t either seem to get it, they don’t seem to be participating in what we as normal citizens are participating in. And I’m wondering if anyone on the panel has an idea how they justify that?
PENNER: I certainly will ask my guests but I did want to say that you do have some control because four of the eight city council members are up for election, four of the seats will be up for election this year and the primary is in June, on June 8th, so you sure can exercise your vote as to who you’re going to vote for and that’s a power that you have and you should use it. So there, that was my little lecture. Tom York, did you want to respond to her about, you know, whether city – whether our city council members really get it or not. While everything else is being cut, how much of a hit have they really taken?
YORK: Well, I look at it a different way. You know, in this current downturn about ninety – let’s say 88% of the people are fully employed. Things really haven’t changed for them all that much, and I would include most of the political sector. It’s the other 12% that are in this – kind of this employment hell that’s intractable, the unemployment, it’s very hard to get jobs. So I think when you’re in the employ – the category of being employed, you tend not to feel the pain of those who are out of work and I think there’s just a little bit of this going on with the city council.
PENNER: Okay, thank you, Tom. And we’re going to return in a moment—thank you, Annie, as well—with more about the situation in the city of San Diego and the mayor’s State of the City address. I’m Gloria Penner. This is the Editors Roundtable.
PENNER: I’m Gloria Penner. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m at the table today with Tom York from San Diego Business Journal, Alisa Joyce Barba from NPR News and David Rolland from San Diego CityBeat. A great panel and we are enjoying talking about the mayor’s State of the City address and taking your calls. And we just had a couple of really interesting callers. Before I get to the next caller, I want to note that—I watched the speech—that the most enthusiastic moments were when he said he would like to keep the Chargers and he’s pursuing the analysis. So where does this recent enthusiasm come from, David Rolland? I mean, what changed from a few years back when he said San Diego didn’t have the time or the money to try to keep the Chargers?
ROLLAND: I honestly – I don’t know. I don’t know.
PENNER: Oh, you don’t know?
ROLLAND: I don’t know where it comes – now, I have not talked to the mayor about that. I don’t know where the new enthusiasm comes from.
PENNER: Oh, speculate, David.
ROLLAND: I just know it’s there. No, I can’t. I’m not going to speculate that.
ROLLAND: I don’t personally know where that new enthusiasm comes from. I think – I don’t know.
BARBA: I’ve been noticing Bolts all over town. I mean, and people are wearing shirts. Maybe could it be their record? Maybe could it be they may be going to the Super Bowl? Who knows?
PENNER: Do you think that’s it? Do you think before they started getting to be good he really couldn’t care less?
BARBA: Well, I think that – I think politically it’s a lot safer to be in favor of a stadium right now, like today, than when…
ROLLAND: But they were good a couple of years ago. They…
ROLLAND: They’ve been good for a number of years now…
ROLLAND: …and this is sort of brand new and I think it’s probably just a proposal that came from the Chargers on, you know, on downtown and using redevelopment money, which the mayor has, in other cases such as the downtown library proposal, kind of says, well, that’s not really general fund money, that’s not really like taxpayer money, it’s redevelopment money and it’s got to be spent downtown. And so it’s easy to do, you know, and it’s not going to affect, you know, basic services like libraries and cops and firefighters. So I think it’s maybe just responding to this new proposal.
YORK: Well, one of the things I would…
PENNER: Tom York.
YORK: …say real quickly is I think the mayor feels like that maybe the situation we discussed earlier, the chronic budget deficits, I think he feels like he has that under control and now that that’s somewhat under control, he can look around and see what else needs to be done and I think keeping the Chargers here is going to become a priority because of the economic benefit of having a football team of that stature here.
ROLLAND: Which is highly debatable. There are people that say there aren’t – there isn’t really an economic benefit to, you know, to the football team being here.
PENNER: Well, there’s also the fact that the day after the speech, on the front page of the San Diego Union-Tribune was this big article about CCDC raising its cap on how much money he can – it can spend on redevelopment, and it needs to raise the cap if they’re going to, indeed, fund part of a downtown stadium.
YORK: I agree. I think that, you know, that you have to have a lot of money. It’s going to cost a billion dollars to build a new stadium and so…
PENNER: Of public money.
YORK: Of public monies, private monies, it’s going to be a mix. But I think that, you know, there’s a lot of people in town that would disagree. I think they feel that there is a huge economic benefit of having a professional football team here. And they’re going to go to great lengths to make sure that it stays here, and downtown would be a perfect fit because of all the hotel rooms downtown and eateries.
PENNER: Okay, let’s hear what Derek in Ocean Beach has to say. I don’t think he’s talking about the Chargers but he has something relevant. Go ahead, Derek.
DEREK (Caller, Ocean Beach): Oh, thank you, Gloria. I think the city should take bankruptcy and I know it’s hard for the council and the mayor to agree on doing that because, you know, there’s an ego problem, I think. But it’s the American way. Bankruptcy, all of our biggest corporations have been bankrupt at one time or another, not all of them but many of them. General Motors recently was. Orange County’s been bankrupt. I think KPBS has had some discussions in the past about the possibility of bankruptcy but I think it should be revisited. Pat Shea, a lawyer here in town, was one of the principles in the Orange County bankruptcy. He has a lot of information about it. I think we ought to have a – just have a really good discussion about it and see if it could be a possibility for solving the city’s problem of not having enough income to pay for its expenses.
PENNER: Well, there are all kinds of bankruptcies, aren’t there? I mean, there’s the reorganization type bankruptcy, there’s the kind in which your – the creditors have to forgive the debts. I mean, there are all kinds. Tom York, have you, you know, paid attention to the bankruptcy in terms of a real option, a real alternative…
YORK: Well, the…
PENNER: …to the city?
YORK: …the bankruptcy has – I think, by the way, the option of bankruptcy is fading into the rearview mirror faster and faster as we go forward. But the option of bankruptcy allows – would allow the city to basically undo the contracts with the employee unions and also probably tool around with the unfunded pension liabilities and that would be the benefit of it. But it comes at great cost. You know, I think that it’s sort of a last step phenomenon.
PENNER: Orange County managed to bounce back pretty well from its bankruptcy but, David, there was something interesting that happened just a couple of weeks ago. This sort of maverick task force that was an offshoot of a citizens task force that the mayor had appointed, they came up with all these ideas and apparently the mayor didn’t like those ideas and sort of dissed the task force. We haven’t heard much about what their recommendations are but one of them was that bankruptcy should be considered.
ROLLAND: Yeah, and it was a sort of a be careful what you – be careful what you ask for, you know, you might get an actual answer and you might not like it. And I think that was the case with Sanders there and it was a little bit of a political backfire. But, yeah, I think anything should be on the table. You know, it’s – But it makes sense for a mayor of the city to resist at all cost a bankruptcy talk on his watch. I want to back up for just a second. I think I misspoke when I said there’s no economic benefit to having a football team in San Diego. Certainly there – in any business, if you lose that business, you lose those jobs and that has an economic benefit. I think I sort of confused myself in thinking about whether it was sort of a generator of redevelopment downtown, and I think that’s kind of what I was thinking.
PENNER: Okay, well, thank you, David. It’s always nice when one of our editors revisits what he has to thank – had to say and rephrases it. All right, let’s move on now. And, by the way, our callers who didn’t get on in this segment, please feel free to go to KPBS.org and file your comment in our section. It would be, let’s see, KPBS.org/editors and then you can just file your comment.