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Hard Choices for Hard Times

As appeared in San Diego Union Tribune; November 17, 2006

Steve Francis

Friday, November 17, 2006

Hard times require hard choices. That phrase came to mind when Mayor Sanders unveiled his five year financial forecast showing a $5 billion dollar debt, a $794 million structural deficit, and $394 million in cuts that only gets the City half way toward a balanced budget. There is still a gap, as Mayor Sanders acknowledged, of more than $399 million that still needs to be closed. That stark financial reality is why efforts must be redoubled and why, today, all San Diegan must participate in an open and honest dialogue about what our City will be and the services that it will deliver. Fundamental questions must be asked, sacred cows must be gored and the status quo challenged if we are to solve San Diego’s structural deficit.

For almost 20 years San Diego leaders betrayed the public trust when they shirked their responsibility to be guardians of the public purse - to tell both special interests and well meaning citizens that the City’s first priority is to focus on core services. Elected officials deceived the citizenry and rank-and-file employees when they didn’t or wouldn’t tell labor union negotiators that proposed salary increases and pension enhancements were unsustainable. Elected officials did not maintain the City’s existing infrastructure before creating new programs and making new financial commitments . Hard choices were avoided and tradeoffs almost never confronted. Instead San Diego’s leaders told the public everything was fine and that you could have your cake and eat it to.

The $5 billion debt we confront means that the ways of the past can not continue.

For example, it is long past the time leaders ask all City departments to prioritize their services into core and non-core functions. Starting today City department heads must ask what services are required to maintain the health and safety of our City and which services are discretionary or “nice-to-haves” but which, albeit painful, must be eliminated in a time of austerity. It is incomprehensible that, four years into our City’s fiscal crisis, we are only now examining whether the City should spend $100,000 on sponsoring a competitive swim team. One is tempted to ask those Councilmembers who have objected, “What part of $794 million do you not understand?” Shouldn’t someone at the City be asking whether the City can afford to hire staff to administer an “art-in-public-places” program when police officers go without raises? This is not to single out any one program, they all have their value. Instead they illustrate the broader point –the crisis we confront requires that San Diegans and our elected officials start asking hard questions about whether it is the JOB of the City to provide a particular service or whether it is a ”nice-to-have” program. Posing choices in this way would foster a much more open and honest dialogue about what services, given our fiscal reality, the City can actually afford.

Similar questions need to be asked about the City’s real estate assets. While some holdings need to be kept, others do not. For instance, does the City have any business owning and operating small municipal airports for private aircrafts, which the City subsidizes, when the value of that land is substantial? Leadership in this time of crisis is about asking these sorts of questions in a stark and direct way.

The same hard and fundamental questions must be asked about the public employee pension system that has crippled the city’s ability to function. Can the City afford to provide employees, and their spouses, who retire at 55 with free health-care until they become eligible for Medicare at 65? Should employees, rather than the taxpayers, be asked to pick up a greater share of the cost of paying off the $1.4 billion pension deficit?

When elected officials turn to competitive outsourcing it is imperative that they take a similar bold and direct approach. Should, for example, 100+ city employee maintain city golf courses or could that work could that be done less expensively by outside contractors? Could all of park maintenance be outsourced among San Diego’s many landscape maintenance companies?

Closing the gap between what the City collects and what it spends will require these sorts of hard questions and hard choices. Mayor Sanders has started us down the right path with his 5-year plan that achieves almost $400 million in savings. However, a large percentage of that savings is through the elimination of currently vacant positions. As the Mayor noted, the next steps will be extremely difficult and the citizens of San Diego need to support the Mayor and other elected officials willing to make the hard choices that will be required. In turn, the Mayor needs to include the public in the dialogue to follow if we are to forge the consensus necessary to move our City forward.