Friday, Dec. 1, 2006 | In their ongoing exchange, both Pat Shea and Joe Flynn make substantial points about local taxes, but neither tells us what San Diegans currently pay in total for their local government. It’s important that we answer this basic question as objectively and as fully as possible, because the back-and-forth of “we pay too much, we don’t pay enough” doesn’t get us to the real issues, which are: What kinds of municipal services do we want, at what level should these services be provided, how much do we want to pay and how should we pay for them? Shea is correct that we need to look at all the ways San Diegans pay for their local government, but his subtext on taxes versus fees, and for that matter the “ruggedness” of our terrain, ignores the real questions posed above.

There have been numerous entreaties to the local news media to stop the endless back-and-forth and objectively report on what San Diegans in fact pay for their local government. Shamefully, the response has always been arrogant silence and many of us suspect that the reason for this silence is that the answers might not be so good to those with an agenda that frankly often seems hostile to the public sector, whether it is well managed or not.

The local news media’s opposition to reporting such facts reminds me of a quote from Bill Clinton that appeared in the Sept.18, 2006 issue of The New Yorker magazine in which he says “But the thing that bothers me about having an ideology as opposed to a philosophy is that, if you have an ideology, then the outcome is dictated before the facts are in, before the arguments are heard. And that, I think, can cause problems.” Too much of our reporting and subsequent public dialogue in San Diego has revolved around ideology.

Let’s have some facts. Finally informed, the citizens will follow with their own philosophy, without need to follow patronizing editorial pages.

So, for those organizations with aspirations for a Pulitzer (new or repeat), here are just a few of the many studies that need to be done.

  • Let’s compare in constant dollars what San Diegans pay today per capita for core municipal services such as police, fire, parks, libraries, trash, water/sewer for the same services in 1990, 1980, 1970, 1960, 1950, etc., etc. Let’s also compare police and fire respond times, square yards of park land provided per citizen, the number of library books per capita, the pounds of trash collected per capita, changes in water quality standards, changes in the level of sewage treatment, etc., etc. for each 10-year period.
  • Conduct an economic impact analysis that looks objectively at whether or not local tax dollars may properly be viewed as an investment rather than punitively viewing tax expenditures always as money “lost.” Analyze the number and income value of the public sector jobs created, the resulting impact of those jobs on the local economy, and the impact of having a sound infrastructure and key municipal services on home values. Many San Diegans brag about their high home values and generally attribute these much if not most of these high values to the great weather. Well, Haiti has good weather too, but with an economy – and home values – in shambles amid the almost complete lack of public investment, thanks to longstanding governmental corruption and incompetence. Our home values in San Diego reflect much more than the weather

Does anyone truly believe that what we call the public sector has had absolutely no impact or affect whatsoever upon local property values? What will happen to San Diego home values if we continue to dismantle what was once a very competent local government? (The same of course applies to educational expenditures.)

  • Conduct an objective comparison of total per capita expenditures for local government here in San Diego versus other cities of roughly equal size around the nation. Look at local property tax rates, local sale tax rates, special levies, the whole works. Tie in prevailing wages, economic growth, home values, crime and insurance rates, citizen satisfaction, etc., etc. and let’s see if there are any correlations. (Regarding insurance rates, it’s not inconceivable that we could end up paying the same or more in increased property insurance costs as the “price” of cutting good local fire service. The same applies to auto insurance as a result of reduced traffic planning/infrastructure and diminished police traffic enforcement. Pretty ironic, huh?

What is the current average annual property tax paid toward municipal government in San Diego for a home valued at a.) $300,000; b.) $600,000; and c.) $1 million? (From my perspective, there should be a City Charter requirement that this information be printed on the back cover of every annual city of San Diego budget.)

Want a new or expanded municipal service? There ought to be a ready reference table – updated annually – for elected officials and citizens alike that charts what the annual property tax impact would be in hundred thousand dollar increments for the home values noted above for any new or expanded municipal program.

What’s amazing is that, in spite of all the people discussing and supposedly looking at tax expenditures, no one – not the pundits, not the mayor, not the council, no one – has answers to any of the above very basic questions. Doesn’t that strike you as remarkable?

If we were running our local government as a successful private business, we would surely have the answers to all of the above questions. We would also demand that those who are the deciders base all of their fiscal and budgetary allocation decisions solely on sound economic and cost effective principles. And yes, we would have audited financial statements, along with sunshine laws and actual disclosure practices that would be the envy of the nation.

Shea wonders about the presence of so many fees in San Diego and our inability to meet clean water standards in spite of high water and sewer rates. The nexus should be clear: the lack of information about the cost of local government and the absence of backbone from a succession of our local leaders to “tell it like it is” and make hard decisions has resulted in the very things that concern Shea, Flynn, myself and many others.

It has led directly to both “clever-by-a-half” fees and other disingenuous revenue schemes to get around raising local property taxes, as well as a sad history of consistently funding programs just enough to get the water delivered for example, but not enough to meet current clean water standards as other communities are able to do, much less enough to establish reserves for scheduled infrastructure replacement.

Jon Dunchack is now retired after having worked for the city of San Diego for 35 years.

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