Our reporting relies on your support. Contribute today! 

Help us reach our goal of $250,000. The countdown is on!

Friday, Jan. 12, 2007 | A year after rattling the City Hall establishment with a series of bold initiatives and candid assessments, Mayor Jerry Sanders settled into a more comfortable State of the City address Thursday, reiterating last year’s theme that sacrifice for all lies ahead and promising that 2007 will be the “year of action.”

San Diego’s 34th mayor continued to attempt to inject an unbridled optimism into civic life — hailing everything from San Diego’s sports stars to its academics and natural resources — while at the same time issuing dark premonitions and preparing residents for the budget cuts that have been expected since his victory in a 2005 special election.

Sanders declared the state of the city “unsatisfactory,” a stark contrast to a community where he said “99 percent of things are going well” overall. He hinted that a smaller, leaner variety of services would be available to residents in the near future, but continued to hold off on exactly what would be cut to fill an estimated budget deficit of $87 million in 2008 and more than $174 million the year after.

The former police chief ticked off a long list of accomplishments for the previous year, such as the completion of the $20.3 million Kroll Inc. investigation, a securities-fraud settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the passage of his two ballot propositions. At the same time he demanded patience from those, including some frustrated supporters in the business community, who expected swifter reform.

“The positive transformation of city government will continue to be a work in progress for the foreseeable future. Anyone who tells you otherwise — or asserts that it can happen quickly or without sacrifice — either doesn’t understand the depth of our problems or is not being candid,” he said.

“I think it’s fair to say that the problems are more severe, more complicated than what I previously anticipated,” Sanders said.

He called 2006 a pivotal year in the city’s history in which its past sins were acknowledged. This year, the city will move ahead, he said. “Two thousand and six will be in sharp contrast with 2007. Two thousand and seven will be a year of action,” Sanders said.

The mayor repeatedly used variations of the word “sustainable” in casting his hopes for future city finances. He said he spent his first year in office “taking stock of our complicated set of circumstances — to begin unraveling the messes left to us.”

Sanders also spent the year working on two separate financial recovery plans. The first one, released in April, was based largely on borrowing and ran into legal and political problems. It was later panned by Kroll consultants. A second five-year-financial forecast saw the mayor expand his dire assessment of city finances away from simply pension and retiree health care issues and onto an array of issues, including hundreds of millions of dollars in deferred maintenance needs and the fulfillment of Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

“Today, we know where we stand. We know the full extent of the challenges and problems we face and we know that we can — and will — overcome each of them if we work forthrightly and collaboratively,”

As accomplishments, the mayor also listed San Diego’s place as the fourth-safest big city in the country, the city’s return to an upper level of homeland security funding and his streamlining studies of city departments. He also lauded the city’s sports stars — LaDainian Tomlinson, Trevor Hoffman and Tony Gwynn — for their individual accomplishments and referred to the Chargers as “Super Bowl bound.”

And, although the address was billed as a “meat-and-potatoes” speech, the mayor did lay the groundwork for what could become major initiatives. They include:

  • Searching for a development partner to construct a new City Hall and redevelop the four-block surroundings. Sanders hopes to leverage the city’s land holdings and entice a developer to construct a new City Hall in exchange for a long-term development lease on the surrounding land, similar to the recent Navy Broadway Complex deal.

About 2,000 city employees work outside city buildings in leased office space in five downtown buildings, Sanders said, costing $12 million a year. With those leases set to expire in 2012 and 2013, the mayor cast the decision as money-saver.

  • Preparing the Water Department and Wastewater Department for complete privatization.
  • Begin next year pursuing major changes in the city’s pension and retiree health care systems. Each carry a deficit of $1.4 billion. Sanders said he will wait until next year because that is when all five employee unions must return to the bargaining table.

Last year, the mayor offered a number of brazen initiatives that proved to be more daring than Sanders the candidate. He called for all the council-appointed trustees of the pension board to step down in part to get City Attorney Mike Aguirre reinstated as the troubled pension system’s legal council. Both moves failed.

In that speech, he also announced plans to seek $850 million private loans to perform mandatory upgrades of the water and wastewater systems. Sanders later pulled back on the immediate request, choosing to further study the issue. He is again now making a similar push.

The mayor said this speech was designed to lack sizzle.

“By design, this evening, you will not hear me announce any dramatic new initiatives that cost a lot, dream big, but result in little,” he said. “That’s just not where our city is right now.”

Attendees offered mixed reactions to Sanders’ speech, with some crediting the mayor for his candid, measured approach. Others still searched for the answers to San Diego’s financial crisis, or, conversely, lamented those plans already on the table.

“It was a back-to-basics speech,” Council President Scott Peters said, applauding what he say was mayor’s emphasis on the city’s quality of life instead of the government’s recent woes.

Peters also said he observed the mayor taking a long view — that the city’s troubles can’t be cured with a quick fix but rather in a gradual manner. “It’s helpful to see that he acknowledges that things will not get done in one year, that it’ll take time.”

Sanders’ plan to help close the deficit through the elimination of more than 900 positions spurred some employees to stage a demonstration outside Golden Hall before the speech.

“Morale is at an all-time low and this didn’t help,” said employee Jim Carter, a board member of the city’s white-collar union. “It seems like there’s still a lot of doom and gloom.”

Councilwoman Toni Atkins said the talk of cutting jobs may look like an attractive plan on paper for some, but that residents will only begin to feel the pain of that budget crunch when it’s their favorite city service that gets axed.

“The message tonight, I thought, was for preparing citizens for what’s to come,” she said. “When they feel the cuts, that’s when it will be interesting to see what this really means.”

San Diego County Taxpayers Association President Lani Lutar said she expected some harder medicine from the mayor, who must still navigate a sizable gap in the city’s operating budget and a multibillion-dollar debt for pension, retiree health and infrastructure costs.

“I’m a little disappointed that he didn’t address how to address shortfall that he still has left in his five-year plan,” Lutar said. “The plan in my mind is all talk until we see how it is going to look in reality.”

County Supervisor Ron Roberts, a former councilman and three-time mayoral candidate, said Sanders set the right tone by foreshadowing the cuts that need to be made.

“The city has been living way over its means, and this is the first mayor to have truly recognized that,” Roberts said.

If 2007 is the year of action, that means it will be the year of pain as residents feel the impact of service cuts. The timing could be precarious for Sanders, as 2007 will also be the year he begins gearing up for reelection should he chose to run again.

“We have laid out a path for creating the right kind of city government for San Diego and have taken the first steps toward that goal. We have done this as a united community intent on retaining the quality of life that has drawn or kept us here,” he said. “Make no mistake about it, the year ahead promised to be a difficult one for all of us.”

Please contact Andrew Donohue and Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.