Tuesday, April 18, 2006 | For the past two to three years, all attention has been focused on the city’s pension problems. Or if not there, on its cousin: post-retirement health benefits. There are now scores of experts on the topic as well as boards and commissions whose task has been to figure the mess out and recommend solutions. Much is discussed and much is written. Not much has been done, but that’s another topic.

Meanwhile, however, our physical assets are crumbling around us.

Back in early 2002, the “Blue Ribbon Committee Report on City of San Diego Finances” attempted to quantify the backlog of deferred maintenance on city assets. It was a nearly impossible task because a true inventory had never been done. Why? Because it was so clear to staff that the City Council wouldn’t do anything about it, it seemed pointless to spend the time to compile a complete and accurate list.

And besides, it would be pretty politically unpopular to surface just how bad the problem really was (sound familiar?).

At that point, the backlog of maintenance and repairs on streets, alleys, sidewalks, traffic lights, etc., was about $163 million. The projection was that at the current rate of growth, the number would be $245 million within five years. If the streets I drive on are any indication, the problem is probably worse than that.

The backlog on buildings and structures was estimated at $65 million. A report was later issued by the General Services Facilities Division pegging the cost at $45.1 million. Oh, but P.S…..that number didn’t include asbestos abatement, ADA-required changes or anything that required actually going into walls to assess (e.g. electrical, plumbing, etc.). Curiously, that report went out of its way to assure us that anything related to public safety had already been handled. That was probably the part the city attorney had them add.

Some attempts had been made to deal with the backlog of fleet maintenance. But it is unclear whether the plan was ever fully funded.

To those categories, the Blue Ribbon Committee added a category for deferred procurement. It covered obsolescence in such areas as computer systems, but also acknowledged that some assets simply become too old to effectively maintain (such as vehicles or the police communications system). That backlog was assessed at about $170 million.

My sense at the time was that if you truthfully added up all of the deferred maintenance and procurement, you probably would get to a list of about $500 million… maybe more. Much concern was expressed over the fact that 1) the city had no real list quantifying the whole backlog and 2) the city had no clue as to how much needed to be spent each year to keep that backlog from growing.

The Blue Ribbon Committee’s Recommendation #5 read as follows:

The mayor agreed. The city manager agreed. The council members agreed. And, according to an April 26, 2002 Memorandum to the mayor and council, Ernie Anderson said that a comprehensive report was to be developed and presented during that upcoming year.

I’m still waiting.

Now we have Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed budget. We still don’t have a list, but he acknowledges that there is a backlog (hooray!). He proposes an increase to the budget in that area (hooray again!) but if you listen closely, you learn that if the questionable legal maneuver that funds the annual pension payment with debt implodes, that increase in funding to the maintenance needs disappears.

It’s plain to me that he’s not trying to pull a fast one with the pension, he’s just trying to figure out how to get the potholes fixed. In my opinion, he would be better served to fund the increased maintenance allocation with cuts in other areas of the budget. If it was me, I think I’d eliminate that whole million-dollar Office of Ethics and Integrity and fix a roof instead.

It’s too bad that our buildings and streets don’t have unions, attorneys, lobbyists or “friends” No one gets paid to speak up for the roofs and the alleys. And our city suffers.

April Boling is an accountant. She was the vice chairwoman of the Blue Ribbon Committee on City Finances and was later president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. Agree? Disagree? Send a letter to the editor.

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