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Friday, August 12, 2005 | As San Diego moves toward a November election, voters will soon decide which candidate can steer the city in the right direction. In local government, the right direction is always toward fiscal stability, accountability to taxpayers and a balanced budget.

To repeat a sadly overused phrase, the city of San Diego is in crisis. By now we are familiar with its challenges: a lack of financial planning and oversight that has caused government coffers to run dry; reserves that are all but nonexistent; interest rates and public debt that are skyrocketing; bond ratings and investor confidence plummeting. Taxpayers fear the worst and bankruptcy seems a real possibility. Worse yet, too many in the current city bureaucracy seem both unaware of the fundamental structural problems that have led to financial disaster and woefully incapable of offering solutions.

What is a mayoral candidate to do? As an elected official who took office to finish serving the remainder of a term just as the largest local government in the region teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, I along with my colleagues on the county Board of Supervisors, have learned some hard lessons that can provide insight into a common-sense strategy for making government work.

From the experience of turning a bloated, debt-ridden dinosaur of an organization into a streamlined and efficient model that has been named one of the best managed counties in America, we have identified and put in place a few fundamental principles that can be useful in turning the city around.

As the campaign season shifts into high gear, both candidates are refining their strategies for overcoming the city’s challenges post-election, when the real work of governing begins. At this critical juncture, I would humbly and respectfully offer the following suggestions for consideration in planning a course of action:

Fiscal stability must always come first

Embrace change

Move employees to where they’re needed – serving the public

Strive for government clarity and accountability

Think long term and big picture

With an annual budget of more than $4 billion and 17,000 employees who serve nearly 3 million residents spread over more than 4,000 square miles, coordination, fiscal and operational discipline, and shared commitment are vital. The principles and procedures outlined in the GMS apply to every county function, and every county employee on an ongoing basis. Briefly, the GMS process begins with long-range, five-year strategic planning followed by short-term, two-year operational planning, which encompasses the budget process and includes details of each department’s strategic objectives and the resources allocated to them. More than just budgeting, the GMS incorporates constant monitoring and evaluation to make sure that the county stays on track, identifies risks early on and accomplishes what we set out to do. In fact, while the Board of Supervisors approves an annual budget each year as we are required to do by state law, we also approve in public session a two-year operational plan for revenues and expenditures. We set measurable goals that are focused on results rather than processes, and we plan ahead. Should our plans not meet needs or expectations, we’ve built in publicly noticed quarterly budget adjustments to refine our plans and ensure that tax dollars are being spent wisely as community needs and available resources evolve.

Plus, because the GMS operates organization-wide, we’ve eliminated the “black holes” that can plague government and eat up time and scarce resources when departments operate independently. The GMS ensures that sound planning, preparedness and improvement become permanent organizational ethics; a defined model that has the added benefit of de-politicizing the budget process and building a firm foundation of fiscal restraint that endures through political change. It is a system that has earned the county both state and national recognition for our sound management practices and is reflected in our strong bond ratings (AA- by Fitch at last report).

Lessons learned

These changes have not been easy and sometimes have been politically dicey. Sweeping organizational improvement takes time, commitment and the guts to publicly admit failure when we haven’t been getting the job done. It is a Herculean task, but one that we’ve proven is not impossible. I have every confidence that any government can change with the will to do so. My confidence extends to the city of San Diego voters, who will ultimately select a mayor with the leadership abilities to seek out an executive team that, together, can make this same kind of organizational makeover possible at the city of San Diego.

Supervisor Greg Cox currently represents the First District on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and currently serves as president of the California State Association of Counties. He is the former mayor of Chula Vista.

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