Despite operating a relatively low-tax municipality, San Diego City Hall managed to get by for years—at times the beneficiary of a good economy or a housing market on steroids, other times through budgetary shell games. The smoke and mirrors were so effective that the city's top bureaucrats and leaders of several of the city's employee unions—thanks to a City Council that was either compliant with, or oblivious to, the shenanigans—agreed to add enhanced retirement benefits to the “expenses” side of the ledger, knowing full well that the city couldn't afford them unless the stock market sailed forever skyward.
Of course, that doomed-to-failure scenario unraveled in 2004, and after a chastened group of city officials spent four years trying to climb out of a gaping chasm, the global economy spiraled down the dumper, taking San Diego with it.Now, unable to undo much of the unfunded-benefits damage and nearly going so far as to shutter libraries and rec centers across town, it seems the city has no choice but to try to raise new revenues, and there are two obvious places to find money: a more equitable trash-hauling fee and an increased fee to pay for state clean-water mandates. Currently, the city collects a little less than a dollar per month from homeowners to make sure that the rainwater that washes into the ocean is clean, but it costs the city about $7 per month per homeowner to run the program. And while apartment and condo owners are charged for trash pickup, owners of single-family homes are not.
Together, those fees could amount roughly to an additional $80 million a year and more than wipe out a deficit greater than the one the city will face in the coming few months (the city can't raise these fees in time to actually balance the next budget). Whether it would be enough to overcome deficits in subsequent years depends on the economy and the property, sales and hotel tax receipts it brings.
In more or less normal times, equalizing the trash fee and raising a very small storm-water fee—both of which would require approval by either all voters (trash) or just property owners (water)—wouldn't seem too daunting a task. The former wouldn't be a skip through the daisies, but it could be sold as a matter of fairness; the latter would be a fairly easy environmental argument.
But these aren't normal times. Some property taxes will rise slightly this year despite dropping home values; people have lost jobs or had their pay cut amid decreasing consumer spending; 401Ks and stock portfolios have plummeted. In normal times, faced with requests for new fees, attitudes across town would range from “Over my dead body” to “Sure, no problem,” but these days, the deck is stacked against the city.
It's likely that the only hope Mayor Jerry Sanders has is to be able to tell voters that he has squeezed substantial concessions from the unions, and he has two years' worth of negotiations before he can bring a trash fee to the ballot and one round before he can ask property owners—in a mail-in ballot—to kick down for clean water.
We realize the unions (yes, we should distinguish between the five of them, but there isn't enough real estate on this page) need to keep the damage as minimal as possible, but at the end of the day, they must pony up—without a bunch of noisy guff, please.
Most importantly, the City Council must show the unions who's boss. There's a ton of concern in this town that the unions are running the City Council—specifically, Ben Hueso, Marti Emerald and Todd Gloria are under our microscope.
The City Council has to come to grips with the fact that they can't balance the budget with raising fees, and they won't be able to raise fees if they can't prove that they can be firm with city employees.
Editor's Note: A paragraph from the original editorial, concerning recent action by Councilmember Gloria, has been removed because, upon further analysis, we deemed it to be unfair and lacking key information.