Second Guest Blog: City Budget Crisis

This post is the second in our series of guest blogs this week addressing the city’s budget deficit. We’re asking how the city solves this year’s $179 million deficit and other projected deficits going forward.

Today’s blogger is Vince Vasquez, senior policy analyst with National University’s Institute for Policy Research think tank.

Here is Vasquez’s response:

The San Diego City Council faces a daunting task in closing the $179-$201 million budget gap before it. Proposed solutions to closing this gap (on paper) will undoubtedly include severe, top-down budget balancing tactics, but these have historically been met with ire by San Diego residents and firm rejection from their elected representatives. Moving forward, a better approach would be to enlist the help of everyday citizens to balance our budget and meet both the short-term and long-term needs of our community. 

Rather than raise odious taxes and fees to create new revenue streams, why not ask for greater voluntary participation from the public this fall? Last month, the city of Los Angeles announced it raised $18.6 million from a three-month tax amnesty program, allowing businesses and individuals to pay owed back taxes without fear of penalties or prosecution. Similarly facing a massive budget deficit, the city of Chicago opened a 10-week amnesty on overdue parking tickets and red light infractions, which this spring generated $7 million for city coffers. To be sure, short-term amnesty programs won’t close San Diego’s budget gap by themselves, but they stave off draconian cuts and layoffs that are sure to appear on the dais at City Hall. 

San Diego residents could also be beneficial in identifying waste, redundant programs and inefficiencies in the Byzantine corridors of our local government. For too long, San Diego’s purchase agreements, expenditures, leases and contracts have been hidden from public view. Showing the public how taxpayer dollars are actually spent is a fundamental reform that is long overdue. Posting these important documents on the city’s website, and soliciting the assistance of citizens may find government perks and taxpayer obligations that should be up on the chopping block. For example, city documents from last year reveal that City Hall has previously budgeted at least $30,000 for bottled water, $135,000 for periodicals and $247,000 for “parking stamps” for city departments to dole out to guests. What would updated documents uncover?

Beyond our immediate financial crisis, public-private partnerships will need to be crafted to keep core neighborhood institutions up and running — our public parks, libraries, and recreation centers. A little known precedent has already been established within city limits, proving the utility of these partnerships. In 1995, the City Council approved a new city pool in Carmel Mountain Ranch to be built, maintained and operated by a private fitness company. Today, that pool provides longer operating hours and lower usage fees to the general public than standard municipal pools. Rather than close existing parks, recreation centers and libraries, (or delay the groundbreaking of future ones), why not press for the City Council to approve similar partnerships with non-profit community groups and small businesses in every Council District?

Though the largely Democratic and labor-backed San Diego City Council has demonstrated the courage to enforce concessions from city labor unions, it may well be San Diego residents who will usher in the true structural reforms necessary to bring City Hall back to fiscal solvency. Budgetary incrementalism has failed to stabilize our long-term liabilities such as pension costs, and advocates of managed competition have been politically outmaneuvered by those who oppose it. As our city lurches towards the June 2010 election, the electorate could be confronted with ballot measures to expedite the competitive bidding of city services and provide new public employees with a viable 401(k) alternative to a defined benefit plan. If our elected officials continue to find themselves averse to political risk and sound budget-balancing policies, San Diego voters may find themselves to be linchpin to the financial recovery of City Hall. 

♦♦♦

Thoughts on Vasquez’s argument? Post your comment in The Hall blog if you’re not there already or chime in on our readers’ conversation. I’ll be posting the best reader responses on Friday.

— LIAM DILLON

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