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According to Phil LaVelle and Scott Lewis, two analysts of the local political scene, Arthur Levitt’s key message in the just-released Kroll report is that “San Diego’s problems are not simply economic, they’re political.” This has been interpreted by them and others to mean that real solutions will require elected officials to bite the bullet and raise taxes. As voiceofsandiego.org editorialized Wednesday,

“This is an opportunity for [Mayor Sanders] to stand up and lead us through those tough decisions. He doesn’t have to back away from his plan, he can take the advice of the highly paid consultants.”

Setting aside for a moment whether or not the city of San Diego really needs to raise taxes, the above analyses seem to me to miss the most basic truth of our current predicament: San Diego residents do not believe their city government has spent their existing tax dollars prudently. Residing in his taxpayer-financed penthouse in upper Manhattan, Arthur Levitt may not be aware that out here in the provinces tax increases require the consent of the taxpayers. But even if the mayor and City Council fully embraced the concept, hell would almost certainly freeze over before city of San Diego voters would approve a tax increase under the current circumstances.

And why should they? City government has obligated them and their children to over $1 billion of debt for underfunded employee pensions that most residents could only dream of receiving in their own jobs. Until recently, many city bureaucrats treated the public as adversaries rather than as taxpaying clients. Donald Cohen and his union-backed think tank have argued that San Diegans are under-taxed compared to residents of other major cities. But his analysis fails to take account of the “taxes” residents in most of the northern tier pay for special districts that maintain their roads, parks, libraries and other public facilities. Nor does it factor in the premium – tens of thousands of dollars – many residents paid in developer and school fees when they purchased their homes to support facilities that taxes pay for in many other cities.

The political pundits – and unsuccessful mayoral candidates – who dismiss attempts to make city government more efficient and less costly – “shuffling paper” is how it was described – are missing the point. Until city government earns back the peoples’ confidence that their existing tax dollars are being spent as efficiently as possible, talk of raising taxes is like Floyd Landis asking his sponsors for a raise because he won the Tour de France.

Tom Shepard

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