Opinion

Make City Government Leaner

Make City Government Leaner

File photo by Sam Hodgson

The San Diego Civic Center

Now what do we do about the pension plan?

Well, the city surplus has suddenly become a deficit, and you can expect a flood of letters blaming Carl DeMaio, Jerry Sanders and others who tried to mitigate the fiscal disaster that is the pension plan by making changes, but it’s best to remember who the real culprits are.

Letters logoFirst, you have the state Legislature, plus Gov. Jerry Brown, who, tin his first tenure more than 30 years ago, signed the enabling legislation for collective bargaining by California public employees, something Franklin Delano Roosevelt adamantly opposed because he was a very astute politician and foresaw the consequences: Politicians purchased by unions, with the public picking up the tab. Should anyone be surprised that, on average, state government employees make an average of more than $76,000 per year and can retire with full benefits 10 years before private sector employees?

Second, you have a former City Council and mayor who, in November 2002, approved Manager’s Proposal II, boosting pensions while underfunding them, instantly creating the current mess. Among this distinguished bunch were the following:

• Toni Atkins, now one of the leaders of the state Assembly;

• Scott Peters, elected last year to Congress;

• Brian Maienschein, elected last year to the state Assembly; and

• Jim Madaffer, elected shortly after he left office to president of the League of California Cities.

So, third, you have the voters, whose short memories allow career politicians to escape accountability for their poor decisions. These people, when they were faced a few years later with what they’d done, shrugged off their decision with the claim they’d been “misled by staff,” and the public bought this explanation. It’s our own fault we keep electing knaves, liars and fools.

Notice I don’t blame the unions; they did what unions are supposed to do. They got they best deal they could for their members. It’s not their responsibility to come up with the city’s contribution to the pension plan or point out the folly of what the city agreed to. It was, after all, not that different from what a lot of California cities, counties and even the state did. Too bad none of them could afford it, but the officials in charge knew the taxpayers had to make their commitments good.

What happens now? Well, the shortfall might give a boost to San Diego’s version of outsourcing, managed competition, but since the few functions that have been subject to this process have all been won by city employees under rules stacked in their favor, it’s not likely to make a difference for future pension contributions. And it has saved some money, but it’s not going to save enough to solve this problem.

The thing to do is to get as many employees off the payroll as fast as possible and keep them off, the sure way to limit the city’s liabilities. But how? By getting rid of things the city does but is not mandated to do. Let’s start with Mount Hope cemetery, the three golf courses and the two airports the city operates. Sell ‘em! That’ll generate a good amount of cash and get rid of things that chronically lose money. Then it’s time to look at other recreational facilities and maybe even sports stadiums. Identify everything that is not required by the city charter, and work to get rid of it.

Bill Bradshaw lives in Mission Beach.

Bradshaw’s commentary has been lightly edited for style, grammar and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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Bill Bradshaw

Bill Bradshaw
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25 comments
Rick Smith
Rick Smith

Don, I disagree with you, at least a little. Our most recent cities; Poway and Encinitas, were incorporated because residents felt the county was allowing too much development, and local land use control was better. Why can not we do the little things, consolidate Fire Departments and Library systems? I admit, cost savings would be minimal, maybe a few Assistant Chiefs and Head Librarians being laid-off, but if we can not do the easy things, how are we going to do the hard things?

Rick Smith
Rick Smith subscriber

Don, I disagree with you, at least a little. Our most recent cities; Poway and Encinitas, were incorporated because residents felt the county was allowing too much development, and local land use control was better. Why can not we do the little things, consolidate Fire Departments and Library systems? I admit, cost savings would be minimal, maybe a few Assistant Chiefs and Head Librarians being laid-off, but if we can not do the easy things, how are we going to do the hard things?

Don Wood
Don Wood

Why does San Diego have more than 17 different city governments and more than 30 different water districts? Historically, new governments and water districts were formed when the county refused to upzone land for new development, or the water district refused to extend water service to proposed rural housing subdivisions, so the developers funded the incorporation of new cities and water districts and packed their board to get their new zoning entitlements and water service subsidizing sprawl development. Today much of the county has been built out, so is there really an ongoing need for all these local cities and water agencies? Someone should do a study to see how much tax money could be saved via government consolidation. This has already when budget problems convinced three east county fire departments to pool their resources and cut back on fire chiefs. We should at least take a hard look at how more of this kind of local government and agency consolidation might work. The biggest cost of government are staff salaries and benefits, and given how much local city and water district executives are paid, consolidation might save taxpayers a whole lot.

Don Wood
Don Wood subscriber

Why does San Diego have more than 17 different city governments and more than 30 different water districts? Historically, new governments and water districts were formed when the county refused to upzone land for new development, or the water district refused to extend water service to proposed rural housing subdivisions, so the developers funded the incorporation of new cities and water districts and packed their board to get their new zoning entitlements and water service subsidizing sprawl development. Today much of the county has been built out, so is there really an ongoing need for all these local cities and water agencies? Someone should do a study to see how much tax money could be saved via government consolidation. This has already when budget problems convinced three east county fire departments to pool their resources and cut back on fire chiefs. We should at least take a hard look at how more of this kind of local government and agency consolidation might work. The biggest cost of government are staff salaries and benefits, and given how much local city and water district executives are paid, consolidation might save taxpayers a whole lot.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw

I appreciate all the comments on my idea, and I'll admit the details need to be worked out (e.g., how many operations can we combine with the county to save money for both parties), but to do nothing but gradually cut a little here, a little there is a failing option. Getting people off the payroll is the fastest and surest way to save money. As it stands now the people that WON'T be on the payroll are going to be police officers and firefighters the city planned to hire. The streets are still falling apart, the water mains and storm drains still flood regularly, and sidewalks, as VOSD constantly points out, are a mess. It's time to set out our priorities and run the city for the benefit of residents and visitors, not bureaucrats and employees. I'll admit I don't have any relatives buried at Mount hope, but am I the only one who thinks it a little strange that the city operates a cemetery? As for generating more revenue, I'm all for that, but it usually means socking it to residents (e.g., red light cameras, paid parking at Balboa Park) which turns out to be politically unpopular. Paid beach parking is a "no brainer", virtually every beach city does it, but it's a tough sell. Let's start with cost savings.

Bill Bradshaw
Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

I appreciate all the comments on my idea, and I'll admit the details need to be worked out (e.g., how many operations can we combine with the county to save money for both parties), but to do nothing but gradually cut a little here, a little there is a failing option. Getting people off the payroll is the fastest and surest way to save money. As it stands now the people that WON'T be on the payroll are going to be police officers and firefighters the city planned to hire. The streets are still falling apart, the water mains and storm drains still flood regularly, and sidewalks, as VOSD constantly points out, are a mess. It's time to set out our priorities and run the city for the benefit of residents and visitors, not bureaucrats and employees. I'll admit I don't have any relatives buried at Mount hope, but am I the only one who thinks it a little strange that the city operates a cemetery? As for generating more revenue, I'm all for that, but it usually means socking it to residents (e.g., red light cameras, paid parking at Balboa Park) which turns out to be politically unpopular. Paid beach parking is a "no brainer", virtually every beach city does it, but it's a tough sell. Let's start with cost savings.

Don Wood
Don Wood

So the city should just sell Mt. Hope cemetery off to real estate developers and let them pave it over and sell houses? Please, a bit more respect for writer Raymond Chandler and all the other luminaries of San Diego's history, including my own father. I'll be Mt Hope wouldn't be on his list the author's own family were buried there. Sell off Torrey Pines Golf Course to private interests? How long would it take before the resold it to USCD for new buildings, or to real estate developers for multi-million dollar seaside homes? What does the local golf industry think of that proposal? The city can't just sell off Pueblo Land's the golf course sits on. Its way more complicated than that.

Don Wood
Don Wood subscriber

So the city should just sell Mt. Hope cemetery off to real estate developers and let them pave it over and sell houses? Please, a bit more respect for writer Raymond Chandler and all the other luminaries of San Diego's history, including my own father. I'll be Mt Hope wouldn't be on his list the author's own family were buried there. Sell off Torrey Pines Golf Course to private interests? How long would it take before the resold it to USCD for new buildings, or to real estate developers for multi-million dollar seaside homes? What does the local golf industry think of that proposal? The city can't just sell off Pueblo Land's the golf course sits on. Its way more complicated than that.

Rick Smith
Rick Smith

If it is time for the City to run leaner, and generate cash, perhaps it is time to stop giving away, for free, its most valuable resource. And that resource is free parking at the beach, especially during holidays. Auction slots off to the highest bidder, or pay per hour.

Rick Smith
Rick Smith subscriber

If it is time for the City to run leaner, and generate cash, perhaps it is time to stop giving away, for free, its most valuable resource. And that resource is free parking at the beach, especially during holidays. Auction slots off to the highest bidder, or pay per hour.

John Stufflebean
John Stufflebean

According to the City Budget, it appears that Torrey Pines is a money maker for the City.

MARK GIFFIN
MARK GIFFIN

Nice commentary Bill. In the private business sector the survival strategy of making, selling and distributing doesn't go in the public sector. Maintaining the status quo and justifying it is the SOP. As far as Brown is concerned he let the Genie out of the bottle no doubt. As far as the 2002 city council/mayor 2002 approval Manager’s Proposal II that was a bi-partisan deal with downtown interests and the unions (and by an extension the city employees) Un like you though I do put a large portion of the blame and responsibility on the unions. (the exception being the police officers and their union. they did not go along with the underfunding) They were part of the scheme. And of course the voters. They share the blame. At the time all of this was occurring I was writing letters to the editor about this. Barely anything was in the opin section about it. You know what was the big debate at the time? seals at the beach. Divesting assets should be considered. The next 12 years the pension payments are set to balloon. Monies are going to have to come from...or out of...somewhere.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

Nice commentary Bill. In the private business sector the survival strategy of making, selling and distributing doesn't go in the public sector. Maintaining the status quo and justifying it is the SOP. As far as Brown is concerned he let the Genie out of the bottle no doubt. As far as the 2002 city council/mayor 2002 approval Manager’s Proposal II that was a bi-partisan deal with downtown interests and the unions (and by an extension the city employees) Un like you though I do put a large portion of the blame and responsibility on the unions. (the exception being the police officers and their union. they did not go along with the underfunding) They were part of the scheme. And of course the voters. They share the blame. At the time all of this was occurring I was writing letters to the editor about this. Barely anything was in the opin section about it. You know what was the big debate at the time? seals at the beach. Divesting assets should be considered. The next 12 years the pension payments are set to balloon. Monies are going to have to come from...or out of...somewhere.

David Hall
David Hall

Aren't the golf courses contained within an enterprise fund? How much money do they lose the city, Bill?

David Hall
David Hall subscriber

Aren't the golf courses contained within an enterprise fund? How much money do they lose the city, Bill?

Scott Hasson
Scott Hasson

The 2 city owned airports, Montgomery field in Kearny Mesa and Brown field in Otay Mesa do not lose the city money. They are operated under and Enterprise fund and they take no money from the general fund at all. All employees are also paid from the enterprise fund. So, I would re-think that comment. At brown field we are in the final steps of developing the airport with a 1 billion dollar over 20 year project that will change the airport for the better. The Airports advisory committee of which I am a member of for 7 years now, is working with the city airports division to make some improvements at Montgomery field also. The issue is environmental. We have these little nothing shrimp in puddles of water every 5 years and the cost of an EIR is unreal. You have to move a shrimp that you cant see and we have let the CEQA process get out of control....forget about the timing of getting anything done in the city which takes years. Remember these 2 airports are relievers for Lindbergh field.

Scott Hasson
Scott Hasson subscriber

The 2 city owned airports, Montgomery field in Kearny Mesa and Brown field in Otay Mesa do not lose the city money. They are operated under and Enterprise fund and they take no money from the general fund at all. All employees are also paid from the enterprise fund. So, I would re-think that comment. At brown field we are in the final steps of developing the airport with a 1 billion dollar over 20 year project that will change the airport for the better. The Airports advisory committee of which I am a member of for 7 years now, is working with the city airports division to make some improvements at Montgomery field also. The issue is environmental. We have these little nothing shrimp in puddles of water every 5 years and the cost of an EIR is unreal. You have to move a shrimp that you cant see and we have let the CEQA process get out of control....forget about the timing of getting anything done in the city which takes years. Remember these 2 airports are relievers for Lindbergh field.

MARK GIFFIN
MARK GIFFIN

To be leaner and take advantage of economy of scale there has to be the will to do so. the will to do so just isn't there. In fact with the current makeup of city government just the opposite is true. The water/wastewater dept would be a good place to start with a performance audit to determine just how much dead wood there is, or isn't. I suspect that is where the other city agencies recycle their excess/displaced employees.

Mark Giffin
Mark Giffin subscribermember

To be leaner and take advantage of economy of scale there has to be the will to do so. the will to do so just isn't there. In fact with the current makeup of city government just the opposite is true. The water/wastewater dept would be a good place to start with a performance audit to determine just how much dead wood there is, or isn't. I suspect that is where the other city agencies recycle their excess/displaced employees.

Chris Wood
Chris Wood

Just when you think city government is not listening to citizens i.e. “Make City Government Leaner” http://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/07/03/make-city-government-more-lean/ They surprise you. http://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/07/12/how-a-summer-of-scandal-could-cripple-the-city/ “…The city has no permanent chief operating officer, chief financial officer, Development Services director, head of code enforcement or director of its nearly $1 billion water and wastewater systems. ….”

Jim Jones
Jim Jones

Scott, how much of that airport money comes from the taxpayer? Didn't Montgomery get $4 mill in tax dollars for runway improvement? Doesn't money from the city pay for police and government aircraft there?

Chris Wood
Chris Wood subscriber

Just when you think city government is not listening to citizens i.e. “Make City Government Leaner” http://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/07/03/make-city-government-more-lean/ They surprise you. http://voiceofsandiego.org/2013/07/12/how-a-summer-of-scandal-could-cripple-the-city/ “…The city has no permanent chief operating officer, chief financial officer, Development Services director, head of code enforcement or director of its nearly $1 billion water and wastewater systems. ….”

Jim Jones
Jim Jones subscriber

Scott, how much of that airport money comes from the taxpayer? Didn't Montgomery get $4 mill in tax dollars for runway improvement? Doesn't money from the city pay for police and government aircraft there?

Scott Hasson
Scott Hasson

Jim, True the FAA grants funds comes from the FAA and we know that taxpayers fund the FAA. So every year the 2 airports vie for grants funds with other airports in the same category as MYF and SDM. On the SDPD and SDFD, I don't know the exact arrangement for the helicopter operations and the payments to the enterprise fund for their bases of operation at Montgomery. I am sure they pay a price as they would if there where based at any airport. I just don't know. You might inquire with the airports division. I can tell you there is a plan to move the SDFD helicopter operations to the same side of the airport as SDPD and make the west side the helicopter base for all rotor-craft at the airport.

Scott Hasson
Scott Hasson subscriber

Jim, True the FAA grants funds comes from the FAA and we know that taxpayers fund the FAA. So every year the 2 airports vie for grants funds with other airports in the same category as MYF and SDM. On the SDPD and SDFD, I don't know the exact arrangement for the helicopter operations and the payments to the enterprise fund for their bases of operation at Montgomery. I am sure they pay a price as they would if there where based at any airport. I just don't know. You might inquire with the airports division. I can tell you there is a plan to move the SDFD helicopter operations to the same side of the airport as SDPD and make the west side the helicopter base for all rotor-craft at the airport.