June 23 2009 09:06 PM

City may have passed a pain-free budget, but it has a bigger hole in it than Henry's bucket


You remember the old song. You had to sing it in school—at least if you're old enough to have attended school back in the days when peripherals like music and art (you know, the foundations of the culture?) were still taught. Henry tells Liza there's a hole in his bucket. Fix it with straw, she says. But the straw is too long, the knife to cut the straw is too dull, the stone to sharpen the knife is too dry and the bucket to fetch the water to wet the stone has a hole in it. A lesson in catch-22 for third graders. And, apparently, for the 202 C St. gang.

Last week, Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council exchanged high-fives for passing their $3-billion balanced budget on time. But, as the old song goes, there's a possible $100-million hole in your budgetary bucket, dear Jerry. Except, of course, you and the City Council know that—and, it would seem, don't really care.

Mike Aguirre used to tell me that no one on the outside would believe just how corrupt San Diego government really is. I always thought Mike, being Mike, was being his usual hyper-hyperbolic self. Watching the city, especially over the past year or so, I have to wonder. It's not that San Diego corruption manifests itself in the usual, East Coast Sopranos wads-of-cash-in-paper-bags-and-bodies-in-landfills sort of way. San Diego corruption is more Midwestern Anglican white-bread sins of intentions gone awry, a corruption of forfeited ideas, ideals and common-sense intelligence corrupted by ego, ambition and a prevalent civic sense of “Who, us? Corrupt? How can good people like us be corrupt?”

I mean, look at the recent record.

Former Councilmember Scott “Pension Underfunding?” Peters gets a plum position on the Port Commission. Former city land-use chief-cum-private sector fixer Jim “A Sunroad Too High” Waring, two years out from a scandal that rocked the city (and should have resulted in a few political heads being rocked from their shoulders) gets appointed to the city Housing Commission. The one constant vox populi on the council, Donna Frye, is passed over for council president in favor of Ben “Can I Get My Council Parking Ticket Validated So I Can Go to Sacramento Already” Hueso. “Progressive” newbie Councilmembers Marti Emerald, Todd Gloria and Sherri Lightner are found to be making favorable votes for favorable contributing lobbyists. The Union-Tribune, meanwhile, sticking even in its death spasm to its usual fair and balanced approach, only reports on the lobbying relationships of the three Democrat freshmen and not the lone newborn elephant, Carl DeMaio. (Who, I am sure, never, ever, ever took a dime of money for anything from anyone who might have business before the council.)

So, passing a $3-billion no-pain-for-anyone budget (except, of course, those lazy, lazy city workers—you know, all those doughnut-eating cops, napping firemen and, of course, those vixenesque librarians standing around all day tempting us with their tortoise-shell glasses—who take all our money and do nothing except keep us from being murdered, burned or becoming even more illiterate than we already are) is par for the course in San Diego municipal misgovernance.

Raise a few fees here (take that, overdue-library-book hooligans), cut some worker compensation there and, above all, avoid any significant cuts to services or increases in taxes that might annoy the electorate (oh, isn't it wonderful to be able to label a tax a fee and have no one call you on it) and—voilà!—an $80-million budget deficit disappears. Meanwhile, funding for city infrastructure projects (which Emerald raided to preserve monies for council office budgets) remains hundreds of millions of dollars in arrears, the pension fund remains precariously funded and, bit by bit, with poorly kept roads here, poorly maintained parks there and a general lack of proper upkeep everywhere, the city continues to take on the patina of a declining Detroit.

All is well in Fiscal Fantasyland—except, of course, for looming state property- and gas-tax revenues claw backs of $70 million. Except for the continuing decline in sales-, hotel- and property-tax revenues, which will blow a hole in the city's projected revenue model. Except for the fact that balancing the budget for now has required dipping $20 million into city reserves to cover non-recurring expenses (and there are always non-recurring expenses—just new ones), reserves that aren't going to be replenished anytime soon.

But for that, the budget works. It holds water. Of course, that would be water under the council's formulation: just the “O” part of H2O. In voting against this budgetary sham, DeMaio has become the one voice of fiscal factuality on the council. DeMaio the voice of reasoned dissent? San Diego is starting to make Tehran politics look enlightened in comparison.

Why not admit the truth now and get it over with: There is no way, given the current economic and fiscal realities, the city will be able to maintain its projected budget without making real, painful cuts or raising real, painful taxes, neither of which the mayor or council have shown the slightest inclination of seriously considering. And why should they, given the state of mind of San Diego voters—otherwise known as the Give-us-all-the-services-and-leave-our-stinkin'-pocketbooks-alone! crowd.

Only divine intervention may save the Golden State and San Diego. And today, the messenger of divine providence is the fellow with the slightly larger-than-average ears in D.C. Barack Obama has shelled out a trillion dollars to help Wall Street banks that still aren't loaning, three quarters of a trillion dollars in federal fiscal stimulus that still isn't really flowing and $50-plus-billion to an auto industry that's still sinking. So when is the obvious revenue sharing of an additional $50 billion to bail out states going to happen?

Or how about this: California buys GM using bonds issued in the Hong Kong exchange backed by an AIG credit-default swap using the rights to the complete Arnold Schwarzenegger film collection as collateral. Then the new GMornia Corporation can petition the feds for the paltry $25 billion it needs to close its budget hole and leave San Diego's money alone.

Short of one of those scenarios developing, Jerry and the gang might as well have written their budget on one of those Da Vinci Code papyrus scrolls that disintegrate at the slightest touch. As it is, the shelf life of the new budget can be measured in moth-years, something Councilmember Kevin Faulconer readily admits. But, then, why care? San Diego voters don't seem to.

Yes, there's a hole in your budget, dear Jerry. But the bigger hole seems to be in the heads of San Diego voters who continually elect / reelect the same people to do the same things with the same outcomes. That's the name of our tune.    

Write to carll@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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