The City Council was discussing José Toscano. It was Dec. 1, and the city had a $31-million budget gap to close.
Some city employees were going to get laid off, and Toscano was one of the possibilities. So, the council members wondered aloud, should Toscano remain in city employ after Jan. 1? Does San Diego really need Toscano on the job? Just how important is Toscano to keeping the city running efficiently?
OK, that's not exactly how it went. Toscano is a painter for the city, and the council was discussing the possibility of cutting four painters from the city budget. Given traditional union rules, those four people are typically the ones with the least time on the job. During the last 10 years, the city has gone from having 20 painters to eight. Each time, it's the most junior person who's out on his ass, which means that on Dec. 1, with four more painters on the chopping block, 48-year-old Toscano, with 19 years, five months and one week in city employ, was one of the four in danger.
As City Hall grapples with budget cuts involving millions of dollars and hundreds of positions, Toscano is the human being behind the statistics.
“When it comes to these cuts,” Toscano told CityBeat, “our department comes through—they don't see you as a person; they see you as a number. They don't know how many lives are affected by doing this to someone.”
So even if the City Council didn't discuss him by name, it was still Toscano's job and emotions getting kicked around as the council made budget decisions.
“It's been a roller-coaster ride, we've been up and down for a month,” Toscano said.
Mayor Jerry Sanders announced a $43-million mid-year budget deficit in early November. Two weeks later, after having found $12 million in savings, he presented the City Council with his plan for closing the remainder of the gap. The Monday before Thanksgiving, the council saved libraries and recreation centers, but not the painters. On Dec. 1, Toscano spoke before the council on behalf of his union, Local 127, in hopes of saving his livelihood. He argued that the city needed the painters to keep aging facilities shipshape, and to assist with the city's lead and asbestos abatement programs (painters have to follow the specialists with a layer of primer to keep the material from flaking off as it dries). Then the City Council commenced talking about him.
Toscano and his wife, Vivian, are natives of San Diego. Vivian grew up just a few blocks from the couple's Logan Heights home. The pair are homeowners since the early 1980s, and their seven children all lived in that house. Two are grown and living on their own, two are in college, two are in high school and one is still in elementary school.
José runs a weekend painting business, and Vivian works, but the pair agreed that José's day job brings in 80 percent of the household income and is crucial to paying the mortgage and the school bills.
So he was pretty happy when the City Council voted to restore three of the four painters to the budget, at least for the next six months. Toscano is only the second most junior, by a couple of months, so his job had been saved.“Oh man, I was fired up!” Toscano said. “I'm happy—at least I know that Jan. 1, I'm not going to be laid off.”But on Dec. 3, Sanders vetoed the whole budget.
“I call up my wife; I tell her, ‘You're not going to believe it, but we found out the mayor vetoed everything,'” he said. “We were devastated.”
Then on Friday, they heard from the union again: A deal had been reached between Sanders and the City Council. The painter jobs would be in limbo for a little while, but the mayor would support restoring them when the newly sworn-in council met for the first time. In the meantime, Toscano is optimistic that he'll make it to May 31, at which point he'll at least have put in the crucial 20 years necessary to be fully vested in the city's pension plan.
In some ways, he's actually been pleased to be the subject of so much attention.
“It felt pretty good. It felt like we were finally being appreciated for something,” he said. Even if it was the last time he'd be appreciated as a city-employed painter.
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