Wednesday, July 19, 2006 | It has such a populist ring to it that it’s tough not to love on first blush: The People’s Ordinance of 1919.

But here’s some context that should help you understand just how aged the city law is: it was born at a time when San Diego had 70,000 residents and their trash was given to local pig farmers.

Nearly a century later, San Diego doesn’t have too many pig farmers. But it does have a financial conundrum that will need answers.

The law allows residents of single-family homes in the city of San Diego to have their trash and recycling picked up for free, which costs the city more than $50 million a year. No other big city in California affords their residents such a luxury.

Indeed, not even other San Diegans enjoy the exemption. Most apartment and condo complexes pay private companies to haul their solid waste and recyclables away – meaning that the costs get pushed along to renters, the very people who can’t afford to own their own home to begin with.

So questions arise regarding whether the People’s Ordinance is just, in addition to being outdated.

For these reasons San Diegans must become familiar with the ordinance as we move into the future. The ordinance is one of many anomalies among San Diego’s financial details that must be reviewed if the city is to honestly and responsibly address its long-term financial health in the years ahead. By now, everyone has heard the juicy stories of financial manipulation and scandalous behavior at City Hall. But those anecdotes don’t tell the full story of a city hamstrung by its desire for big-city toys on a small-city budget.

We don’t doubt for a second that there’s cost-cutting to be done at City Hall through streamlining and outsourcing. But there is no single golden bullet to solving the city’s financial troubles. There aren’t even a couple of silver ones.

Instead, we must together ponder as a city what services we’re willing to pay for, what we’re willing to do without and what expenses we’re willing to shove off onto future generations. We must begin doing so now. For too long in San Diego, decisions have been made on the fly without proper consideration or planning. And we’ve seen the result.

Dismissing any option out of hand at a time like this is irresponsible. At the very least, the city must analyze every available avenue to it. Both the labor-friendly Center for Policy Initiatives and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce have supported such a review of the People’s Ordinance in recent years, estimating that a charge for trash pickup could bring in an extra $35 million to $45 million a year.

At a time like this, we believe it’s even more critical to revive a review of the measure.

The City Council, upon the urging of the city attorney, appeared ready to do so a year ago. But the movement fizzled out. Today at City Hall, every penny is vital. Its emergency reserves are drained. Its pension system threatens the entire municipality’s solvency. Police officers are jumping ship. Let’s get to work.

Overturning the People’s Ordinance will likely require a vote of the people. So will a number of other related measures that could bring San Diego in line financially with other cities of its size.

We understand that today isn’t the day for the people to make a yes or no decision on the People’s Ordinance – putting any measure that’s seen to be a tax increase in front of voters today would be foolhardy given the current distrust of City Hall.

But there are a number of things we can all do to begin preparing for our financial future.

The City Council must begin to earn the trust of the public. It can do so by making true pension reforms and avoiding costly consulting contracts like the one with Kroll Inc.

We take Mayor Jerry Sanders’ campaign pledge to refuse to consider any tax increase as what it was – a campaign statement designed to get him elected. Now that he’s elected, the mayor must weigh all the tools at his disposal. In the next year, he must also put together an honest budget that doesn’t rely so heavily on borrowing money. San Diegans will only understand the city’s financial picture if they understand a tight budget’s true threats.

The public, in turn, owes it to itself to do its homework – and looking at the People’s Ordinance is just one chapter in a long night of studies ahead.

San Diegans are rightly skeptical of their elected leaders at this time. However, voters must also take responsibility for their own actions. We select our leaders to represent us. When our leaders fail, we fail. And when we fail, we must own up to our mistakes and learn from them.

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