On a December night in 2007, a drunk driver careened down the steep drive that leads into Montclair Park, jumped the curb and skidded along 50 feet of grass before colliding with the plastic playground equipment, destroying it. Two years later, the park—east of Balboa Park and west of Interstate 805—remains a pleasant expanse of green, but where there used to be plastic slides and jungle gyms, there's a sandy lot, no playground equipment and no kids. Over several visits, CityBeat saw just one family stay and play; even they, in parochial San Diego, were non-locals from Paradise Hills, on an outing to visit relatives in North Park.
“We got here and they said, ‘Where's the toys?'” said Gabby Monroy, sitting next to an empty pizza box. “We promised them we'd go to another park once we ate.”
Monroy grew up nearby, and she remembers having fun on the old equipment. It's odd, she says, watching her two children and nephew scampering about in an empty expanse of sand. Getting the equipment replaced shouldn't take so long, says City Councilmember Todd Gloria, echoing the sentiments of his predecessor, Toni Atkins. But the replacement gear will have to meet accessibility standards set by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And thanks in part to an understaffed city Engineering and Capital Project Department, projects in that hole take years to complete.
According to the City Council's Independent Budget Analyst's office (IBA), of the 37 ADA projects in the 2008 budget, only four were completed, and of the 25 outlined in the 2009 budget, only one has been completed. A list of 82 such projects, dating back to 2007, was presented to the City Council's Budget Committee on May 8. Of those, 62, or 86 percent, are listed as in planning or design stages, with completion dates of 2010 or 2011. These projects include complex renovations but also simple “furnish and install” improvements like those audible street-crossing signs that make chirping sounds when a walk signal starts.
And unlike many other projects, the problem is not budgetary.
“The money's been allocated,” Councilmember Donna Frye said. “We want to know what's taking so long.”
Indeed, Frye and Gloria want to know the problem so badly that they've requested an audit of the city's Engineering and Capital Projects Department. But pending an official audit, the prevailing theory of why these projects are taking so long is a bad combination of confusion and understaffing.
The Engineering and Capital Projects Department is responsible for ADA projects, as well as every other maintenance and new construction project undertaken by the city. In 2007, Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed reorganizing the department as part of a larger reorganization of city government. In so doing, he consolidated all construction work into Engineering and Capital Projects. When the plan was approved, ECP grew by 60 positions, but, the IBA points out, the city shed 89 jobs as part of the streamlining. Staff members are still figuring out just who's responsible for what and where, and they're still getting used to new ways of doing things in the labyrinthine city bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, the city has been battling crippling budget deficits. To balance the budget, the city workforce has decreased from roughly 12,000 people in 2008 to 10,000 people today. For ECP, the reductions have been particularly difficult as the mayor's twin promises of catching up on the city's lengthy deferred maintenance list and of getting up to date on ADA projects fall on their shoulders. But they have to do it with proportionately less people.
In 2008, the department had 277 projects in design or under construction, worth a total of $654 million. In 2009, it had 284 projects worth an estimated $812 million (implying larger, more complicated projects), and the 2010 budget projects 435 projects worth $950 million. That's a 57-percent increase in the number of projects over two years and a 67-percent increase in project value. At the same time, ECP has gone from 463 fulltime employees to a projected 526 fulltime employees in 2010, an increase of just 9 percent.
Compounding matters, ECP has 42 open engineering positions it's been struggling to fill. The IBA has noted these vacancies repeatedly in budget reports over the years. But city sources tell CityBeat that department director Patti Boekamp has had trouble finding qualified engineers, despite conducting hundreds of interviews. Boekamp declined to return any of CityBeat's numerous calls to confirm.
Boekamp doesn't publicly acknowledge any understaffing problems. At a May 8 budget hearing, she blamed lengthy contracting procedures for the delay. Then, on June 5, she sent a memo to the City Council, arguing again that contracting procedures were a problem, but also that there was an issue that had to be worked out with one of the city unions. And she took issue with the IBA's accounting, arguing that of the 37 ADA projects in 2008, 14 were completed and 11 more will be finished by the end of this year. Still, Frye and Gloria want to know why so many projects remain incomplete after all this time.
"This memo sugarcoats the real problem that exists," Gloria said in an email. "As identified by city staff, there are key processes that can be carried out in a more expedient manner. I'd like to focus on how we get to that point."
Even if Boekamp doesn't acknowledge a staffing problem, Sanders concedes that there's nothing he can do about it even if it is the issue.
“We're just going to keep plugging away at it,” he told CityBeat. “With the city's budget the way it is, we can't hire more people.”
But for Gloria, the issue highlights the problems of constantly using cuts to balance the budget.
“What I get from the people I represent is a request for more library hours, more rec-center hours, faster police response times,” Gloria said. “Yet we're constantly told they spend too much; there's so much fat and waste. There's a disconnect. What we have to do is stand up to those voices and call it what it is, a city that's under-funded and understaffed, incapable of completing funded projects that we need in our neighborhoods.”