Searching for the ‘Why’ in Mayor’s Cuts

Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2008 | When San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders presents his package of proposed emergency budget cuts to the City Council on Wednesday morning, he will likely get an earful from upset city residents who want to know why he chose their libraries and recreation centers for closure.

He’s also likely to hear from a couple of upset council members who want to know why he has provided so little justification for his proposed cuts.

“There does not seem to be any kind of rational as to why these cuts were chosen,” said Councilwoman Donna Frye. “Was there a prioritization? What criteria did they use? It just seems to be random.”

Frye, who habitually fights with Sanders over disclosure of city finances, said her office has had a”horrible, horrible” time getting information out of the mayor’s office in the weeks since he announced that the city was facing a $43 million shortfall in this fiscal year’s general fund budget.

Councilman Tony Young and Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin also said that Sanders could have been more forthcoming with his rationale for proposing the cuts he outlined in his report and given Tevlin more to work with in her examination of the cuts.

On Monday, Tevlin issued a 14-page review of the proposed cuts. In her review, Tevlin indicated that her office didn’t have sufficient time to review Sanders’s proposal. And she said the proposal “inconsistent and unclear information.”

Tevlin is recommending that council not take action after it hears the proposal at a special hearing Wednesday, but she said she is confident that she can complete a proper review over the next couple weeks. Mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said Sanders is not expecting vote on the proposal Wednesday, but does expect council to act quickly.

Sanders first disclosed the mid-year deficit on Oct. 14 in a speech to the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, for which he has previously been criticized. Last Wednesday he proposed a package of specific cuts, which included the closure of seven libraries, nine recreation centers and a reduction in services ranging from tree trimming to trash pickup.

Frye said her only contact with Sanders during the entire process was a 10-minute phone call a few hours before the mayor presented his proposed cuts to the media last week. During the phone call, he told her the libraries and recreation centers in her district that he had slated for closure. Frye said she did not get a copy the administration’s full report until she went to the Mayor’s Office and requested it in person several hours after they had been released to the media.

“This is not how you do budget discussions,” said Frye, who wants specifics regarding, among other things, why certain libraries and recreation centers were chosen for closure, updated projections on deficits in future budget years and a detailed list of fees that the city charges for its services.

Laing said that the severity of the crisis is such that Sanders had to act quickly, which, she said, is what people expect out of their strong mayor.

“We are trying to reduce our spending immediately, so we don’t have to do something deeper by the end of the year,” Laing said. “The reason we went about this so quickly was not to leave anyone out of the process, it was to make the process as hasty as possible.”

Laing added that the point of Wednesday’s public hearing is to give both council members and the public the opportunity to air their concerns before the cuts are finalized. “They will have a full vetting of this,” Laing said.

Tevlin said she understands the need for haste, but that a full vetting will not be possible Wednesday because her office has not yet had time to provide council with a comprehensive review of the proposed cuts.

“Do I think this process is the best process? No, I don’t not at all,” Tevlin said. “This was an opportunity (for the Mayor’s Office and City Council) to work together, given the significance of it. So when council is asked to make decisions, we would have had had a little more insight into why the decisions were made.”

In her report, Tevlin said the mayor provided “minimal information” on the impact the cuts will have on city services, he did not clearly indentify cuts that will be carried into fiscal year 2010 and when he described the closures of libraries and recreations centers as “temporary,” he did not say what timeframe he meant by temporary. Also, he did not provide an updated five-year budget outlook, which Tevlin said is “critical to decision making.”

Young said the dearth of information coming out of the Mayor’s Office has put him in a “precarious situation” with his constituents.

“I really understand that we have to make these decisions,” Young said. “And I would assume [the Mayor's Office] used a lot of data to come to their conclusions. But I haven’t seen it. And it’s hard for me to tell my community why their services have to be cut if I don’t have that information.”

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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