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The City budget- you get what you pay for

Over the past two months, since Mayor Sanders released the City’s Five Year Financial Outlook, I have held several budget forums, spoken with many neighbors and chatted via Facebook and Twitter with others, written articles for local media outlets and participated in official City budget meetings, all to help educate and inform the community about the budget deficit and to encourage neighbors to educate and inform me of your priorities, questions and concerns.

If this is all news to you, please visit my website and read “Understanding the City’s Budget,” which is available on the homepage.

Addressing a projected budget deficit of $179—$200 million is a tremendous challenge, and my colleagues and all San Diegans must approach this honestly and rationally.

Mayor Sanders set the right tone in the budget proposal he announced just before Thanksgiving. The City Council will discuss the proposal in the first half of December and is scheduled to vote on budget remedies on December 14.

Key aspects of the proposed budget changes are below.

Public Safety: No police officers or firefighters will be laid off. This is of critical importance for public safety and fiscal responsibility. Protecting San Diegans is the City’s top priority, and the City invests significant money to train each public safety employee. Though current sworn employees will not be cut, the proposal does include reductions to the Fire-Rescue and Police Departments.

Fire Station Rolling Brown Outs: every day, a combination of eight fire engines and fire trucks will be out of service. Implementation details have not yet been determined, though fire stations with both an engine and a truck will likely be impacted. This includes Fire Station 14 in North Park and Fire Station 11 in Golden Hill. Response times will be increased on brown out days.

Reductions in the Police Department: In addition to the reduction of the Harbor Patrol, one-third of the canine units and the mounted police unit in Balboa Park, 86 non-sworn positions currently filled positions will be cut from the department. Administrative responsibilities, including crime lab work, will impact responses to requests for service and some will have to be completed by police officers, likely impacting their patrol time.

Decreased Branch Library Hours: All branch libraries will be open 36 hours per week, down from the 40 hours they currently operate.

The original proposal was to pair certain libraries, including University Heights and Kensington, so that each branch would be open on alternate days. The decreased hours will impact every single branch library in the City.

Decreased Park Maintenance: Park maintenance is being reorganized throughout the City. Other park impacts include the removal of fire rings from the beaches, the loss of a ranger from Balboa Park, the closure of restrooms near beaches during winter months, and many others.

Though I have a difficult time considering approval of these and other proposed reductions, we must all live with the reality: the City does not have enough money to pay for the services it currently provides. This is not a new circumstance; the City reduced staffing and services every year since Fiscal Year 2001, as detailed in the November issue of the District Three Dialogue.

The cuts proposed by the Mayor are painful, to be sure. However, I appreciate that the proposal honestly addresses our financial situation and does not include “what if” scenarios or hypothetical pots of money that could reveal themselves. It is based on priorities and is equitable in that every department is touched.

It is critical to consider this proposal as the temporary measure it is. Though some cuts will likely be long lasting, the proposal relies heavily on one-time cuts. We must use the next 18 months to explore and act on options to correct the other side of the ledger and finally correct the City’s structural budget deficit.

Throughout the last two months and at several forums held in Council District Three, including the City Council Budget and Finance Committee’s hearing on November 21, approximately 300 participants had the opportunity to note their top priority City services; share any services they believe could be reduced or eliminated; and provide additional revenue options they would support. Though the results are not scientific, they provide a snapshot of some of the opinions of our neighbors.

Not surprisingly, Police and Fire-Rescue were ranked as the top two priority City services, receiving 122 votes and 91 votes, respectively. When it came to lower priority City services, 127 people stated a preference for increasing revenues before further sacrificing services, far outpacing the next closest options of Street Sweeping and the Ethics Commission, receiving 56 and 43 votes, respectively. As for specific revenue options worthy of support, a refuse collection fee garnered 100 nods in support, followed by an increase to the Transient Occupancy Tax, which received 61 votes.

Again, these figures are not necessarily representative of all San Diegans, but they suggest an open mindedness to pursuing funding streams to preserve and strengthen the valuable services provided by the City.

I am proud to represent the diverse interests and people of Council District Three and to share these voices at City Hall. When neighbors in some of the less affluent communities are willing to consider spending more of their very limited personal finances to preserve needed services, my colleagues and people throughout our City must realize that pursuing revenues isn’t just possible, it is preferred and necessary. Continuing to diminish our levels of service is no longer acceptable. “Tough decisions” aren’t just about cuts; the conversation must be broadened to include a discussion of revenue.

The dialogue with you will continue on this topic over the next 18 months. I look forward to additional
constructive comments and input from you to ensure the City moves forward responsibly. Thank you for your continued partnership.

Please visit the News and Events section of my website for a list of remaining budget meetings.