San Diego It's a juggling act worthy of vaudeville. The city is perched near the bankruptcy abyss. But its proposed 2005 budget is up almost 10 percent. This fat budget carves the heart out of critical services that benefit citizens of modest means, while continuing to shovel excess sacks of taxpayer funds to corporate-welfare panhandlers and city employees who already enjoy overly generous pay and benefits.
Unfortunately, much of the proposed spending represents atonement for past sins. For example, police and fire equipment, neglected for years, must be upgraded.
Early this month, the new city manager, Lamont Ewell, presented his proposed 2005 budget of $2.45 billion. The budget for the crucial general fund is proposed to rise almost 10 percent to $814 million.
Anomalies and injustices abound. If you are a book lover, you will find library hours cut back sharply. If your neighbor disassembles junk cars in his front yard, you will have trouble getting action for violation of city codes. If you drive a car, you will be punished by delayed street maintenance. If you're a jock, you will face reduced hours at playing fields, gymnasiums, and outdoor courts. If you're a swimmer, you'll encounter closed pools. If you love Balboa Park, you will find the hours at public buildings reduced. Programs to handle storm water will be slashed or delayed.
But the San Diego International Sports Council, consisting of wealthy pro sports idolaters, profiteers, and lobbyists, will get its annual stipend from city government reduced by a mere 10 percent. And the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., whose mandate is amorphous and staff overpaid, only gets a modest 10 percent haircut.
The proposed budget continues the gross underfunding of city-employee pensions and makes no cogent proposals to get the excessive benefits under control. City employees on average enjoy salaries (not including benefits) of more than $50,000 a year. But the average San Diegan makes less than $40,000 annually and has much fewer benefits. The city admits it must plunk $200 million a year into its pension program just to remain at its current grossly underfunded level.
Last week, the city council passed a preliminary salary ordinance -- the first step in setting employee salaries. Yet there was no discussion about excessive pay and benefits, particularly that egregious monument to double-dipping, the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, by which employees effectively get almost double their salary in their last five years then retire with both a juicy lump- sum payment and a monthly check as well as lifetime health insurance.
There was only one positive sign: some city managers took cuts in benefits. Like so many council votes, it passed 8 to 1, with councilmember Donna Frye opposing. "I didn't support the salary ordinance because I wanted to know if it would be fully funded as far as pensions go," says Frye. Not getting straight answers, she objected.
"As much as any budget in the history of the city, this one exacerbates or increases the gap between the rich and poor in our community," says former councilmember Bruce Henderson. The city admits that certain proposed cutbacks may "lengthen the response times for maintenance and repair of streets, sidewalks, traffic signs and markings, storm drain pipes and channels, and street trees." Says Henderson, "Cars get out of alignment because they hit potholes. It inconveniences rich people, but devastates the budgets of poor people."
Similarly, seven libraries will close on Sundays, and hours at the central library will be reduced sharply to 52 hours a week. "If libraries are closed on Sundays, rich people don't care. They buy books from Amazon or rent DVDs or pay cable-TV companies $130 a month to get 250 channels," Henderson continues. "But poor people don't have those options." Libraries provide computer and Web access to people who can't afford electronic systems.
Here's a partial morbidity count: elimination of ranger positions that could lead to a proliferation of litter and weeds in parks; closing of 15 community service centers and 8 police storefronts, which will mean people may have to go downtown for certain services such as payment of parking fines and water and sewer bills; reduction of hours at recreation centers and Balboa Park buildings; closing of 12 swimming pools from November through February; a sharp reduction in after-school programs and postponement of the watershed urban-runoff management plans.
And deeper cuts must be made, says Frye, because of money that will be snatched by the ailing state. The city has an obsession with redevelopment. Earlier this year, Frye and councilmember Ralph Inzunza sent a memo noting that Centre City Development Corp. has $112 million in community development block grants. It's owed the city, and at least $25 million of that money should be used to help plug the city's police and fire needs, say Frye and Inzunza. In typical bureaucratese, they were told it was debt that wasn't meant to be paid back -- "phantom money," a city official called it.
"That's a lie," says civic activist Mel Shapiro, remembering that when mayor Dick Murphy wanted to complete the ballpark early in his term, he got Centre City Development to pay back $40 million it owed the city. "Redevelopment is a sacred cow -- more sacred than the police department." When the city wants its money, the agency "says it has commitments; it has to fix up Balboa Theatre. Is Balboa Theatre more important than police?" asks Shapiro, noting that, although the police budget will be raised substantially, there will be fewer cops on the street.
Centre City "spends almost as much on the downtown as the city's fire department spends in the entire city," says Shapiro, noting that the development corporation's program with the port for a $150 million North Embarcadero beautification "is great for the hotels and entire tourist industry, but what about a decent police force? I don't think redevelopment deserves to trump all the other needs of the city."
Prior to issuing the proposed budget, Ewell was interviewed by the Union-Tribune. Quoth Ewell, "The sole purpose of government is to provide services to a community to try to raise the quality of life." Whose quality of life? He also asserted that the city is "not going to go bankrupt."