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Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007 | A year ago, in one fell swoop, San Diego’s newly elected Mayor Jerry Sanders changed the city forever. Although the city government’s image had long been teetering on the edge of contemptible, in one speech Sanders pushed it over.
“San Diego’s municipal government has failed its citizens and become an embarrassing and corrupt impediment to progress,” Sanders said in one of the many quotable lines he uttered that night.
With statements like that, Sanders forced the city’s insiders, boosters, lobbyists, employees and elected officials to work under a new set of sometimes uncomfortable assumptions. His first major speech indicated that the new mayor was replacing the culture of spin and denial with one based on reality.
It appeared that Sanders was preparing residents to face some difficult times ahead. He was setting the stage for recovery. First step: acknowledge your problem.
He left much of his plan for bringing the city out of its hole vague. And it was understood why he did this: the problem was complicated and overwhelming. He needed more time to understand the potential solutions.
A year later, Sanders will give his second State of the City speech Thursday. Residents now rightly expect that the mayor has had enough time to understand the problems the city faces and he should have had sufficient opportunity to proceed.
Since he first announced his intent to run for mayor, Sanders has promised much: To stage a dramatic financial recovery without bankruptcy or new taxes; to confront the city’s employee unions with a vigor unseen before; to return the city to the good graces of Wall Street; to make city government vastly more efficient; to reduce the cost of housing by streamlining the construction of homes.
When asked about progress over the year, an aide recently said that Sanders’ team has been hampered by the need to deal with unexpected “daily crises.” Indeed it has.
But Sanders has also been slow to understand the realities he himself laid out.
Last year, his speech called for the immediate resignation of a majority of the members of the city’s beleaguered pension board. They ignored him and still serve on the board. The mayor assumed a new group of board members would appoint City Attorney Mike Aguirre to be the pension system’s legal counsel. And although he said many astonishing things during his speech, the mayor’s support of Aguirre on this point was by far the most controversial. But, again, he was ignored.
The mayor promised last year that, unlike his predecessors in the city’s top management job, he would produce a budget that would “truly balance” and one that “can easily be understood.”
His first budget, hastily put together last spring, may have balanced out but only because some of the scariest of the city’s many looming liabilities were adroitly avoided until this year. And the one-volume city budget that the mayor promised would be easy to understand turned out instead to be a rough, multi-volume, sometimes indecipherable document that gave readers neither a clear picture of what their tax dollars were doing, nor a comparison of what they had done in the past.
Again, the mayor had only a few months to assemble a budget. But his time limitations have never made him reluctant to promise more.
Sanders, last year, said he would reform and remake the city’s Development Services Department so that developers and residents could more easily navigate the bureaucratic maze to secure building permits. His staff has a good picture now of what’s wrong with the process — but they say its reform is now a priority for the coming year.
Again, the city’s daily emergencies have delayed progress.
The mayor has undeniably continued to succeed at doing what he did best one year ago: identifying the extent of the problems the city faces. He, as well as anyone, has helped the city’s residents understand the true and ugly state of the city’s government.
He has outlined and bemoaned the cost of the city’s long delayed audit of the 2003 finances. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent trying to understand what happened with the city’s money in that year, and we are no closer now than when Sanders told us last year he would work as expeditiously as possible to see that the accounting was produced.
Again, he has an excellent excuse — it’s hard to imagine who could have delivered what appears to be undeliverable.
Now the city will continue to face the costs of its lack of accounting. Combined with the massive employee pension obligations and the health care costs for which regulators are now requiring the city to account, the city’s bills are mounting.
Sanders has expertly communicated these challenges. And it hasn’t been easy. Residents are rightly confused if they wonder how the city could be in such trouble. In 2006, the city collected more than twice the amount of property tax it brought in just four years earlier. Yet, during that time, the number of city employees per 1,000 residents has dropped.
Even if he successfully implements all of the plans he has laid out, the city will be roughly $24 million short. Add to it the millions Sanders wants to distribute to the paychecks of police officers, and you have a significant hole.
This is the rosiest of scenarios.
The bad news must come at some point. Last year, Sanders said his solutions for the city’s problems would involve pain and sacrifice “for everyone.”
Aside from his sincere promotion of a boost to the rates residents pay for their water and sewer services, Sanders has not offered painful solutions.
Sanders has an obligation in his next speech — or soon after — to lay out his plan for financial recovery. If he doesn’t articulate plans for new taxes or a roadmap to the bankruptcy court, he must lay out a series of dramatic cuts to city government. It is questionable how any nonessential service could survive the kind of cuts needed to balance the city’s liabilities with its current revenue stream.
This is the mayor’s challenge. If he doesn’t face it head on, residents have reason to worry that the new reality the mayor has so expertly laid out since his remarkable speech last year is not one he’s comfortable in.