Monday, October 24, 2005 | Voice Special Report

Editor’s note: Each week leading up to the Nov. 8 election, the Voice of San Diego will explore a specific aspect of the mayoral candidates’ plans for San Diego’s fiscal recovery. This is part four in a five-part series. Read parts one, two and three.

As the two candidates for mayor gradually presented their detailed financial plans, the pages were chock-full of dazzlingly overwhelming figures.

Compartmentalized savings in tens of millions of dollars accompanied nearly every section. It appeared as though a bonanza of savings awaited the next mayor in each nook and cranny throughout the 13 floors of City Hall.

For instance, former police Chief Jerry Sanders would potentially save the city $64 million with a 10-percent swipe across the city’s labor force. He’d knock more than $20 million a year off of the pension deficit with a few alterations and another $10 million by eliminating 100 middle-management positions.

Those numbers have gradually eroded under a few weeks’ worth of scrutiny. Shortly after releasing his plan, Sanders shielded public safety employees from his 10-percent cut, whittling the potential savings from $64 million to $35 million. He realized his pension savings wouldn’t be realized until long into the future, so dropped that $20 million chunk from the plan.

And it turns out cutting the management positions will be tougher than expected, dropping the savings from $10 million to $5 million a year.

Likewise, Councilwoman Donna Frye’s plan is full of nuances, obstacles and ambiguities that may belie her claims that her numbers add up in a way Sanders’ don’t. Frye’s proposal to meld the city’s pension system with the state’s – a massive bureaucratic undertaking – might increase efficiency to a lesser degree than she claims.

She relies heavily on a plan to immediately chop $50 million from the city’s contribution to its pension system by ceasing to recognize allegedly illegal pension benefits. However, she and City Attorney Mike Aguirre are not at all clear about how much of the city’s pension burden they believe they can cut with already controversial legal actions.

The uncertainties underscore a key point. Although numbers seem as though they should be hard, tangible and steady like steel, the truth is that the figures often end up feeling more like a flaccid rope – especially in a high-profile campaign for public office.

With San Diego mired in a financial crisis anchored by a pension deficit estimated to be more than $1.4 billion, the campaign for mayor has focused squarely on the candidate’s plans for financial recovery, and by extension, the presentation of cold, hard numbers. As such, Sanders and Frye have spent the better part of the last month extolling the virtues of their plan while exposing the flaws of their opponent’s proposal.

Each candidate makes it sound simple: My plan works, and my opponent’s doesn’t. The Voice of San Diego analyzed each specific savings and restructuring proposal offered by the campaigns and found that it isn’t quite that simple.

A stark and defining difference between the plans starts with the projected deficits and ends with how that deficit is filled. Frye looks out 10 years and sees a $250 million structural budget deficit than needs to begin being addressed today. Sanders looks to next year’s budget and thinks he’ll be able to use $40 million in straight revenue growth and cut his way into the additional $25 million that he says will be necessary to pay the city’s annual pension contribution.

Here’s how the numbers were presented and how they hold up to scrutiny:

Donna Frye’s AAA Plan

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