It's gotten so even the Republicans are imploring the citizens of San Diego to agree to have their taxes raised. City Councilmember Jim Madaffer, leaving office in a week or so after eight years, said Monday that the “turnip” has pretty much been fully “squeezed” and there ain't nothing left in that thing. Perhaps losing seven libraries and 10 recreation centers citywide would make San Diegans realize that in order to get city services, they might have to actually pay for them. Someday, maybe, he said, they'll have to pay for someone to pick up their trash.
A short time later, Madaffer was the lone vote against a measure that, for now, saved those libraries and rec centers.
Amid a projected $43-million budget deficit in the current fiscal year caused by lagging property- and sales-tax receipts (in addition to a near-crippling employee pension obligation), the City Council agreed with most—about $37 million worth—of Mayor Jerry Sanders' proposal to balance the ledger with cost cuts. What the council would not do is close the libraries and rec centers, rotate the shutdown of two fire-engine companies each day or close 14 bathrooms at Mission Bay Park, leaving a $6.2-million deficit to deal with.
The council, with Toni Atkins and Scott Peters on the losing end, decided against closing that gap by delaying for one year the implementation of Proposition C, passed by voters on Nov. 4. Prop. C demands that some of the money generated through land leases at Mission Bay Park be used to improve that park and other regional parks instead of going into the city's general fund. Councilmembers Donna Frye and Kevin Faulconer argued that the lease revenue should have been kept in Mission Bay Park all along and refused give it up for even only one more year.
Instead, the council chose a couple of options offered up by Andrea Tevlin, their independent budget analyst: raiding a projected surplus in hotel-tax revenue and a reserve fund for enhancing and fixing libraries. They also chose to tap small pots of money set aside in their council offices to help save libraries in their own districts. The decisions irked Sanders, whose finance people wanted the hotel-tax and library funds left alone as part of a system of reserves, and they wanted those individual council funds dumped into the city's general fund.
He told reporters after Monday's council meeting that the council members were obviously afraid to stand up in the face of passionate citizen library defenders and do the right and smart thing.
We get the idea behind building up reserves. But this city, like every other city in California and beyond, is in an emergency situation, and the mayor gave council members less than a month to deal with it as he pressured them nonstop to close the libraries and rec centers. The council had just three meetings to discuss Sanders' proposal, and much of that time had to be devoted to public testimony. One can make the case that citizens could, without too much trouble, travel a little bit farther to get to a library, but one could also argue that shuttering branches and barricading them behind Plexiglas is a drastic measure—not to mention shutting down rec centers, which are used primarily by lower-income folks—and in that light, this is a reasonable use for reserve money.
Jay Goldstone, the No. 2 guy in the Mayor's office, went so far as to undermine Tevlin's integrity, suggesting that she was afraid to tell her council bosses something they didn't want to hear because it would be bad for them politically to close libraries and rec centers. In our view, that's unfair. Tevlin recommended the hotel surplus and the library fund as a way to give the council more time to explore options, and we find that rationale plausible at the very least.
The money the council chose to use totals a mere $5 million. Is $5 million really something for the mayor to get all worked up over? Seems weird to us. The effect of the council's decision, Goldstone said on Monday, was to increase next year's estimated budget deficit from $44 million (had the libraries and rec centers been closed) to $54 million. So even if the facilities had been locked up, we'd still be dealing with a very large problem.
The council could easily turn the table on Sanders. During his talk with reporters, he said the council had used one-time money instead of making a dent in what's known as the city's “structural deficit,” an overall fundamental gap between revenues and expenses—the council was not thinking long-term. But when CityBeat asked him if he would support charging for trash pickup, he refused to answer, declining to engage in wishful thinking about revenue sources that would have to be approved by the voters.
Of course Sanders can't count on nonexistent trash-fee revenue to close the 2010 budget deficit; we understand that. But he wouldn't even say whether or not he thinks charging for trash pickup is a good idea. He's criticizing the council for refusing to deal with a long-term problem, but in our view, he's doing the same thing by declining to begin providing leadership on the issue of raising new revenues. The Center on Policy Initiatives in 2005 recommended a series of fee increases just to get San Diego up to the levels of other large California cities—but Sanders hasn't embraced any of those suggestions. It's always just cut, cut and cut again. He says the citizenry doesn't trust its elected officials to spend increased revenue intelligently, reinforcing the sentiment each time he utters it. The mayor strikes an awfully rigid pose, one not conducive to healthy give-and-take with his legislative partners and the public.
Conventional wisdom is that raising the trash fee is a nonstarter; citizens will never go for it. Maybe Madaffer is right when he suggests that it'll take massive shutdown of basic city services—like public libraries—for voters to even think about raising their own taxes, even if it's just a few dollars a month to finance trash hauling. Or maybe—just maybe—all citizens need is a levelheaded explanation of the situation from a true leader.