Mayor Susan Golding loves to hate Scott Barnett. Not that Barnett, the 37-year-old executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, hasn't backed some of the mayor's biggest pet projects. Last year, Barnett even costarred in television commercials with Father Joe Carroll, the Catholic monsignor, in which both touted the merits of expanding the downtown convention center with public money. And last November, Barnett's group, connected to some of the city's most politically wired insiders, including Chargers owner Alex Spanos, San Diego Gas & Electric, and John Burnham & Company, also endorsed the taxpayer-funded plan to build a downtown baseball stadium.
But Barnett, a consummate fiscal-policy wonk who served on the city council of Del Mar when he was in his 20s, has never concealed his contempt for the San Diego City Council and what he says are its profligate spending habits. And two weeks ago, the Taxpayers Association came out strongly against the city's plan to have the San Diego Unified Port District finance construction of a high-rise hotel on the old Campbell Shipyard adjacent to the convention center. Recently, he shared his views about what he says are some of the city council's other transgressions.
Q. What are some of the worst things happening now in San Diego?
A. Well, from our perspective, the city's overall fiscal condition is worrisome. And it's worrisome for a number of reasons. The economy is going as good as it's going to go. If anything, at some point, it's gonna level out.
But in this good revenue time, the city still is balancing its budget with about $35 to $40 million of one-time revenues. The reserves of the city are still drastically -- and we think dangerously -- low. El Niño hit a couple years ago in the city, and they had $10 million of unbudgeted emergency projects. So they had to shift funds from other capital projects. On top of that, the city has about $300-plus million of deferred maintenance projects.
That does not include interior painting, plumbing, all sorts of other things. And those numbers are several years old. So, well over $100 million in deferred maintenance on the several thousand city facilities. Everything from lifeguard towers to bathrooms to fire stations and so forth. On top of that, not counted in that number is city hall.
City hall, as you know, is gonna be in violation of the city's codes at the end of this year if they don't do from 5 to 20 million dollars of upgrades to city hall -- just to bring it up to code, which all the surrounding commercial buildings had to do.
On top of that, there's at least $40 to $50 million of major storm-drain project needs, which affect not only flooding of streets, but the quality of the streets. It creates sinkholes in neighborhoods and those types of problems.
And forgetting for a moment whether the employees deserve raises or not -- I mean, they may have all deserved them, but from a fiscal point of view, those raises in this current budget they just approved are eating up just about all the new revenues the city is getting this fiscal year. The raises are probably counting for $20 to $22 million in this budget they just approved, and the revenues I think were in the 25 [million] range of ongoing revenues.
You have no reserves. You have major capital-deferred maintenance needs. You have a budget, and you have all your new revenues eaten up by ongoing expenses. And they're increasing other things -- just hiring additional staff, additional personnel, and no ongoing revenues to cover it.
So you add all that and then on top of it, the potential for additional capital projects -- ballpark, main library, North Embarcadero, Naval Training Center, other projects.
It doesn't mean the city will go bankrupt or won't be able to pay their debts. In fact, the first thing they'll pay will be all their debts -- debt service. Then they will pay their contractual obligations, raises and so forth. And if they are short on funds for other projects, that's where they're gonna have to start cutting things like parks and police and fire.
But is there a real-world impact on ordinary people from all this financial fooling around? Why should anyone care if the city council exceeds its budget or hires too many staffers or gets into too much debt? The sun is still going to shine, isn't it?
South of [Interstate] 8, you have much older communities, mostly... more with people of color, which have older libraries, older parks, older sidewalks, older sewer and water infrastructure...alleys that are unpaved in some cases. The more money that goes to debt service and the more money that goes to salaries, it means less money that's available for basic services.
What I think will happen is there will be an increased marginalization of the quality of life, especially in the older parts of the city. And my long-term worry, to be honest, is that we end up with an L.A. situation, where you have the "haves and the have-nots." You have the "have-nots" who have older neighborhoods, older parks, older facilities. And we're spending a lot of new money in downtown, and you know we, the association, for the most part has been supporting those, but we need to look at the broader impact on the community and the neighborhoods. And it's those neighborhoods...the worry is there is going to be some flash point and they're going to realize, "Wait a minute. We're getting the short end of the stick here, and we already started behind in the quality of our services and neighborhoods."
So that's what I think the concern is; you're gonna see a continued erosion of the quality of services or you'll have an increasing explosion of assessment districts where neighborhoods say, "Well, we're not getting our services. So we're going to assess ourselves to pay for it." Well, once again, the poorer neighborhoods are going to have less ability to do that. But everybody in the city is affected.... The water rates are gonna more than double in the next five to six years -- water and sewer rates -- to pay for the infrastructure. So those are the issues, which are there, but nobody on the current council or mayor want to address those issues.