Prop D Threats Prove Empty - So Far
ALISON ST. JOHN: When Mayor Jerry Sanders was campaigning for an initiative to raise the city's sales tax last fall, he said that without the extra revenue, the city might have to lay off more than 200 firefighters and police. The initiative failed - but this year, Sander's budget proposal doesn't mention any police layoffs . In fact his plan would restore some fire stations that were browned out.
Guests: Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief, LA Times
Jim Watters, Defense editor, San Diego Union tribune
JW August, managing editor, 10News
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.
ST. JOHN: When mayor Jerry Sanders was campaigning for an initiative to raise the sales tax last fall, he said that without the extra revenue, the city might have to lay off more than 200 firefighters and police. That initiative, Prop D, filed, but this year's budget doesn't include major cuts to police or fire. In fact his plan would restore some fire stations that were browned out. So J. W, you know, what happened? Is this grounds for accusing the mayor of using fear tactics to try and get that tax increase.
AUGUST: Well, I think first off, I think hats off to Craig [CHECK AUDIO] from the UT who actually wrote the story and raised a question a lot of us are really thinking, what happened? And how come city hall didn't burn down? And I think of course the nay sayers like Richard rider and Carl DeMaio are all over the mayor over this. But hindsight is 2020. Six months ago, on the national level, people were saying oh, woe is me, the economy's never gonna turn. Time passes in San Diego, the tourism picks up, more money's coming into the Treasury, things change. I think at that time, given the group of people that put together the idea for Prop D, I think they were very well meaning, there was nothing devious about this. They thought we were facing a crisis. We go further along in time, they begin looking at things, and they are doing some cuts and if you go to the rec center or if you go to the library at certain hours of the day, you're not gonna be able to do some of that anymore. They're cutting way back. That's where they're taking the chop chops.
ST. JOHN: Right, well, the people who are accusing the mayor of scare tactics are mostly councilman Carl DeMaio and Richard Ryder both of whom have an agenda to sort of outsource city jobs, I think. Is there anyone defending the mayor on this one.
AUGUST: I haven't seen anybody, but I think somebody should step up. Maybe Donna Frye will come out of retirement and say what is going on here? It's 20/20 hindsight. If we continued on, and ewe kept sliding down hill, we might be in a real jack now.
ST. JOHN: Perhaps he just emphasized the threat to public safety last foul but decided when push came to shove that the libraries should take the pain instead. Do you think that perhaps if we had put the libraries on the line more last fall, that might have had a more powerful impact on some people? Jim?
WATERS: That's a good question. I think that you speak to the issue of the credibility. He specifically targeted the public safety jobs knowing that people would be most alarmed about those as being cut. As it turns out, maybe those are not possible cuts. But he is making pretty draconian cuts that affect a lot of people. Even though the economy is improving, revenue is up a little bit, but still there are significant cuts we're talking about.
ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 is the number to join the editors at the round table. What do you feel about the way the budget is shaking up with threats to libraries? In fact, more than public safety. Where do you stand on that choice really? Apparently he would need to find about $14 million to keep the libraries open. Do we know how much extra he got in sales tax to soften the blow to public safety?
AUGUST: I don't know but I don't think it's 14 million.
ST. JOHN: And he did talk about how -- because the economy had improved, he got 20 million more, in other words the deficit was reduced by 20 million because he didn't have to pay so much into the pension fund. In other words, when the economy improve ares, the pension fund gets healthier, and the city doesn't have to cover the cost. So I mean, is it possible that when the economy improves and the pension fund revives, the city budget will be able to restore a lot of what it's cutting now?
PERRY: I don't think so.
ST. JOHN: You don't think so, Tony?
PERRY: I think things were said during the Prop D campaign that do not in the light of day here some months later bear scrutiny. Things happen in political campaigns. I think that we're looking at the wrong end of the telescope. And the end we have to look at is the fact -- is the issue of whether we can continue to run San Diego like some libertarian theme park where we get the most minimal services possible and we pay the most minimal taxes possible. I find it interesting that the deficit or the over run at the city budget off of a $1.1 billion budget, is about what? 56 million dollars? Which I believe would be about what the city would collect if it asked people to pay for the collection of garbage at a rate equal to the 50th percentile of other cities. It isn't that San Diego has been so profligate all the way around that we're going to poor house. San Diego is cheap. It hasn't wanted to pay its bills. It all worked modestly well until the employees got a little moxie, got a little political power, up went their pensions, up went their salaries, and now, this word unsustainable was created. Of it's unsustainable if we continue to have this tax base which is the lowest of major American cities of can we continue to do that? And the answer probably is no. So that's the larger debate, I believe, rather than were things said during the Prop D campaign that don't fit.
ST. JOHN: J. W, you're nodding.
AUGUST: Oh, I agree a hundred percent of it's out of balance. I can't believe -- I remember when Marty Emerald suggested in our campaign perhaps we should pay for the trash collection, and people went crazy on that, and she backed off on that. I agree with Tony of that's a basic service, something most people pay for. Look how they're hounding about the pick up on streets issue the issue of pick up on streets.
PERRY: Private streets.
AUGUST: Right. And how those citizens are all in an uproar. But they're also upset because how come we have to pay and other people don't have to pay 2349 city?
ST. JOHN: So throughout the question, what do you feel? It seems like the editors don't really feel like the mayor was using fear tactics. I don't know how you, as the listener feel about how things changed since last fall when we were given the impression that there would be big cuts to public safety, and now we're hearing that there are big cuts to the library. How do you feel about all that? Now, the pension reform initiative is obviously a big issue in terms of the mayor being able to balance the budget at some time, do you think that it might be in trouble now that Bonnie Dumanis now that who's running for mayor has come out against it? Tony?
PERRY: Well, we're a long way away from it being on the ballot, and it'll be on the ballot when we have the mayoral election in 2012. Bonnie has an interesting history as it relates to these kinds of issues, and has yet to be, I think, subjected to much scrutiny. She wants to stay on the good side of the public employees, particularly the public safety employee, and she grabbed off that position. But this issue that Carl DeMaio has brought up, and in fact the mayor has brought it up in a somewhat different form of whether firefighters deserve the same pension as police officers is a significant and philosophic issue that ought to be debated. Should we pay firefighters based not on what they do almost day every day, but should we pay them on the basis of this thing they do 2 to 3 percent of the time, which is fight fires? Should they be paid as if they were emergency medical technicians? Which they make a lot of those calls. Or should we pay them on the bases of fighting recording fires and risking their lives? Very interesting debate, and the financial health of the city may be riding on what it is that we conclude or maybe what we don't conclusion if we walk away from the debate.
ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 if you've got any thoughts on what Tony is saying here. Mike from El Cajon is on the line. Mike, thanks for calling the editors.
NEW SPEAKER: I look at it at on as anecdotal paranoia. Both sides used fear. DeMaio and his ilk tell us about -- talk about the massive pensions that there's a librarian retired at $250,000 a year or whatever it was. And the Bell administrators, all of that's fear tactics. But the almost line is, the real significance is what the average employee gets. I retired after 30 years in a safety retirement position, and I know I don't get anything near that. I know that I pay most of my medical, and I paid -- and I paid my share of my retirement for 30 years. The average employee is not getting those exposure tent salaries and is not getting free medical for life. And police and fire do need to get that, I --
ST. JOHN: You believe they should -- that both police and fire should get that.
NEW SPEAKER: You have a police officer that goes out and gives his life for the -- his department, and or for the city, and they're trying to tell us that his family or -- his family if he's disabled should not get lifetime care? It's just --
ST. JOHN: Okay. Yeah. Mike, thank you very much for your perspective. I believe the firefighters are still getting disable disability, if that should occur. But you're right of the guaranteed pension is really what's on the table. And that is the question that I think we're gonna all be thinking about fairly carefully over the next year is what do people who put their lives on the line deserve? And is it fair to be discriminating between police and fire that way? Of course the market is the reason why the mayor has included one and not the other. Any reactions to that from the editors here?
PERRY: Well, for argument's sake, after that story came out in the UT, it was interesting that I got calls from paramedics that were grinding their teeth, and I said I'd give them therapy because they are -- they make a lot less than the guys riding along with them. And they think it's unfair.
ST. JOHN: Okay. We'd like to hear your opinion on this. 1-888-895-5727. Is Ron is on the line from Bonita, Ron go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. You asked a question a little while ago, you know, after the mayor said last year that the sky was falling and that if we didn't get a tax increase, we'd have to let -- reduce the numbers of police and fire, and why he didn't do that when the budget came out. And it was really obviously. And it was really easy to understand. It is far easier to cut the hours of libraries and pools and that you knowings like that because those people who use it are not represented by an extraordinarily powerful union. Police and fire, and I'm in no way taking anything against -- away from what they do, but they're represented by very powerful interests. And that's why the mayor chose to go after libraries and other things because there is no fight in that. None whatsoever compared to fighting a fight.
ST. JOHN: Thank you Ron. Tony?
PERRY: Well, also the city charter says public safety is the number one concern of the government and should be. It doesn't say anything about libraries, and I have great regard for city librarians and what they do and the conditions under which they do it. But when push comes to shove, the city charter is pretty specific. Public safety is the number one issue, not libraries issue not swimming pools, not a lot of things.
ST. JOHN: J. W would you agree with that?
AUGUST: Yeah, I wouldn't see the librarians organizing. They wouldn't have much clout. But he is right. They do have a lot of power. Oh, they absolutely do. Bonnie is tip towing around it when she announced she was gonna run. They fear the --
ST. JOHN: Jim.
WATERS: And I don't really think you could ignore the fact that there would be a huge backlash if there were significant cuts to fire and police, and some dire event transpired. What is gonna lap with a library being closed? No one is gonna die in a massive fire. So I think that's also a big consideration.
PERRY: San Diego cut police and fire becomes a national for. And I can swoop in and do a story for the LA Times. I cannot swoop in and do a they're cutting librarians story.
ST. JOHN: Well, I mean they did brown out the fire stations last year. Was that a national story.
WATERS: Well, but we did have the one incident --
PERRY: Yes. Bum you had to really, really stretch that, I think, to make the case. And there was an attempt to stretch it to make that case.
WATERS: There was, up with there was a backlash after that.
PERRY: There's always going to be that cusp that didn't get there fast enough. That's gonna be true if you've got a firefighter on every block of the city. But so far and I think this feeds into the injury was lying school of thought, there seems to be an idea that we can cut but our fire and police protection stays the same. At some point that's not going to be possible. Whether it's going to be next year or five years from now, who knows.
ST. JOHN: J. W?
AUGUST: Are, they are not filling 20 sworn police officer positions.
ST. JOHN: That's right.
AUGUST: And truth be told, they are razor thin out on the field of if there's two incidents or three incidents going on in the city at the same time, we just don't have enough bodies on the streets of they do a good job. Crime rate's down. But they are paper thin. The patrol units of so I don't know where these 20 sworn officers, they're not gonna fill, are those the guys that did the paperwork? And if you're doing the paperwork, why do you have 20 sworn officers doing paper work? So I think that's gonna come out of the patrol and I don't think that's good.
ST. JOHN: Okay.
DEFENDANT: And we've long head in the city of San Diego, fewer firefighres and police officers per capita than any major city in the country.
ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727 the number to call. We'll come back with the editors, Tony Perry of the LA Times, Jim waters of the Union Tribune, and J.W August of 10 News. We'll come back right after this break. .
ST. JOHN: And you're back on the Editors Roundtable here on KPBS. And our phone lines have lit up over this issue of public employee salaries and how to balance the budget. We have time to take probably one call before we move on, but Jeff, go ahead, thanks for joining the editors at the round table.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, I'm one of the howlers calling to defend the libertarian theme park today.
ST. JOHN: Okay. Go ahead, make your case.
NEW SPEAKER: It's not that we don't understand that basic services cost money. It's just a fact that all of us know that the government at all levels takes the money that we give them in additional takes for a really important purpose, and it gets used for something else, and a few years later, we wind up paying more taxes for the same things again. It is our belief, and I'm not a libertarian, that government should be as small as possible, and should only take money for us for things that we have to have and should do no more than what we need as a minimum. Thank you.
ST. JOHN: Okay, Jeff, thanks for that. Tony, you have any response to that?
PERRY: Yeah, it's Fox News nonsense. That is the tea party mantra. Government shouldn't tax me for anything that doesn't give me benefits directly. So leave my Medicare alone, but cut that other stuff for those other people. You know, this is a big diverse community, different people have different needs. There are communities that need public libraries, I've got the money, I can go to Barnes and Noble any time I want. Other people can't. Some people live in neighborhoods where the fire codes are not as modern as other neighborhoods. They need maybe more fire protection. Some people live in neighborhoods where they need more protection are than I do in my gated community with gun towers all around it. This is a big diverse communities that needs a lot of things. And we ought not to just look through the -- it doesn't help me, ergo, it's illegitimate.
ST. JOHN: J. W?
AUGUST: Oh, I agree with Tony, a hundred percent, but I will say government is inefficient, I think inefficient by its nature. And that's what's maddening to a lot of people. Every once in a while we see exposed to these inefficiencies, and we all start grinding our teeth. Why don't they do a better job watch dogging their own business? Why do we have to wait till the media points out problems and why aren't they more proactive? And I think you can start at the feds, go all the way down to the water districts and you see that again and again and again.
ST. JOHN: And maybe this economic downturn is allowing us to tighten the ship. Dan Mira Mesa is on the line with a point. Go ahead, Dan.
NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, I just had kind of a general comment, I think in general what we're seeing is there's no shared sacrifice, and that's a big part of the problem. Those at the top, you know, they seem to be getting more of the guarantees as far as safety nets, and that never used to be the case. I think if there was this shared sacrifice across the board, there'd be more incentive to find solutions. But those who are in power, since they're not being hit, they're not being gored, they don't really care. They're just, you know -- we'll just balance it on cutting everybody else of it's no skin off their back.
ST. JOHN: Okay, Dan, thanks for that perspective. We've got a few nods here from J. W, shakings of the head. Any comments to that?
AUGUST: The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, and the middle class keeps disappearing. I think that may be the biggest picture of all. I think this is all a reflection of some of that.
PERRY: I would defend the counsel members, those that I have met, those I've known through the years of they're given an undoable job in San Diego. How to in this environment, how to cut the budget without cutting services.
ST. JOHN: So that's what's on the table.
PERRY: That's the San Diego dilemma that we've been wrestling around and nicking around the edges and we haven't confronted the large philosophical problems, and people allege that Jerry Sanders is just kicking the can down the road, and someone else will kick it around in 2012 and beyond, and I think there is a certain legitimacy in this view. I think in San Diego that's about as realistic an approach as anything else.
ST. JOHN: Kicking the can down the road.
WATERS: Do you think that's much different than the entire State of California? Because it seems like the exact argument you just made or the discussion that we're having is you could relate to the entire state.
PERRY: Well the state's problem of course is in Sacramento and a two thirds requirement for budget passage and tax increase. So we have an institutional problem in Sacramento that really doesn't exist in San Diego. We in San Diego, from my perspective, have a cultural problem. The culture is a culture of giving lots of good stuff, but don't charge me for it please.
ST. JOHN: Okay. At that point we need to move on.