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Monday, April 18, 2005 | On Nov. 18, 2002, the San Diego City Council approved two critical items. First, they blessed retirement benefit increases that today are at the center of San Diego’s fiscal crisis. Then, they went ahead with funding for the design of the new main library downtown. On that day in November, no one realized that approving those benefit increases was setting a course that would call into question the wisdom of moving forward with the downtown library.

Given San Diego’s current fiscal crisis, it is imperative that the city focuses all its energy on restoring its financial stability. That means setting priorities. The city needs to focus on releasing the 2003 and 2004 audits, resolving the pension issue and restoring our credibility with Wall Street. Moving forward on this project, at this time, is a distraction that the city cannot afford.

San Diego’s budget is in a critical state. For the next few years, the city will be hard-pressed to fund basic services and maintain current assets. In a city that has been unable to address a deferred maintenance problem of more than $300 million, is it fiscally prudent to spend scarce resources on a new downtown library? While the $80 million pledged by the Centre City Development Corp. can only be used in the redevelopment area, by refocusing those funds on the existing needs of downtown, pressure could be taken off the city’s day-to-day budget to address those infrastructure needs.

Supporters of the new downtown library note that, by delaying action, the city jeopardizes a $20 million state grant dedicated to this project. While that is an unfortunate consequence, allowing a $20 million grant to dictate action on a $150 million project that will impose ongoing operation and maintenance costs on future city budgets is fiscally irresponsible. One should also bear in mind that the $150 million price tag is a few years old. Construction costs have soared since that number was approved in 2002, and there is skepticism toward the city’s claim that they’ve trimmed the project to fit the price tag.

Two and a half years ago, the San Diego County Taxpayers Association urged the city to delay moving forward on this project until a full fiscal analysis of the long-term costs could be completed. Hindsight being 20/20, we now know that we should have called for the same scrutiny of the pension benefit increases. Let’s learn from the mistakes of the past. Quantify the impact of this project on the current and future city budgets before moving forward.

Lisa Briggs is the executive director of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that promotes cost-effective and efficient government and opposes unnecessary new taxes.

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