The packed house in the ballroom of the Town and Country Hotel's convention center got a titillating treat on Tuesday when Mayor Jerry Sanders replaced the word “election” with “erection” in a luncheon speech presented by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.
As you might expect, there was much laughter, and the way the mayor good-naturedly reacts to this sort of gaffe sure does make it difficult to criticize the guy. But, sadly, that's the end of the fun and games—on with the critique, unpleasant as it may be:
Sanders made no fewer than 16 references to “hard work” or “tough decisions” or things that won't “be easy.” It's almost as if he was trying to convince himself that he's a tough guy. But talk is cheap. It's better to show us toughness than to tell us about it, and, frankly, we haven't seen a whole lot of toughness.
Let's look at some of the things Sanders talked about:
• The pension system. Thanks to a combination of the weakness of past city leaders and the lousy economy (but mostly weakness), the city is facing a crushing required payment to its employee-retirement fund. In the wake of press reports suggesting Sanders might seek an accounting change that would shift the burden to future years—and increase it—we asked Sanders if he would say unequivocally that he would not do so, and he declined. That seemed weak. On Tuesday, he said, “We will make our full pension payment, to the penny.” So maybe he's toughening up on that one. We'll see.
• The proposed new Downtown library and the proposed expansion of the San Diego Convention Center. It's not hard to say, “Gee, wouldn't it be great to have a spiffy new library and a bigger convention center?” Nor is it too difficult to say that these projects can't be financed by the city's general fund, which pays for basic citizen services. It's also a bit disingenuous to say, in the case of the library, that no money will be used that would otherwise be used for services. Redevelopment money can be used to fix blight, which could be considered a service—and one that's arguably more important than building a new library. Arguably.
It's responsible for the mayor to hold the line on using general-fund dollars on these projects. But he seems to be making a major push for them to be built. He said “we can't allow our judgment to be clouded by the defeatists who think the only response to a weak economy is to abandon our aspirations.” He said these projects would be financed by the revenue they generate and said someone—not taxpayers—will have to give him some money on the front end.
First of all, whose aspirations? Sounds like Sanders has been spending too much time with the city's business elite, who love to get behind grand projects and figure out how to pay for them later. Second, we acknowledge that it's possible that the convention center would pay for itself over time (though hardly a slam dunk), but the library? Really? That one's going to have to be explained to us.
If Sanders think these projects are so important, he should convince taxpayers to pay for them rather than say we really, really need them and then stick out his upturned hat. We might not support that course, but that would be strength.
• The proposed new city hall. Now, here we have a project in which the case has been made that it's necessary and fiscally responsible over the long term. While we like neither the design nor the location, the project makes total sense, but Sanders is so afraid of the Carl DeMaios of the world that he's requiring the project to be in the black in the first year in order to get his blessing. That's weakness disguised as strength.
Sanders is uniquely positioned for the kind of strength and leadership he talks so much about—he's not facing election; he's beholden to no one. The city's done a good job of saving money through streamlining the bureaucracy and getting concessions from the unions. But we thought that once Sanders got those concessions, he'd start talking about raising revenue through, for example, increases in the trash fee and the storm-water pollution fee. Supporting those fee hikes and standing up to the anti-tax zealots would be a real show of strength.
Unfortunately, all we're getting so far is talk. What do you think? Write to email@example.com.
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