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Tuesday, June 12, 2007 | Just as the City Council began taking aim at Mayor Jerry Sanders’ budget proposal in late April, some council members and their independent budget analyst took reporters aside before a weeknight hearing at a hotel ballroom in Pacific Beach.

Their message was succinct: The council expected to flex its authority over the final say more than it did last year, when Sanders was granted some leeway during his first year in office and the strong-mayor system of government debuted.

That’s a Wrap

  • The Issue: After weeks of deliberation, the City Council approved a budget for the 2008 fiscal year on Monday.
  • What It Means: The council criticized Sanders for his pledge that hundreds of layoffs wouldn’t impact the city services, but it adopted his plan after a debate over the mayor’s semantics ran aground.
  • The Bigger Picture: The tension seen in this budget season was indicative of the more political environment in the city since the strong-mayor form of government took effect in 2006.

“It will be the first year in which you’ll see the council and mayor play out the budget process the way it should,” Councilwoman Toni Atkins said.

On Monday, the City Council approved a spending plan for the 2008 fiscal year, which begins July 1, after several weeks of haggling with Sanders. Within the $1.1 billion budget that Sanders laid out for city services in April, the council made marginal tweaks to buttress some city services such as clearing brush in order to guard against potential fires as well as to the city’s methods for monitoring the strength of its workforce.

But with respect to the more controversial issues of Sanders’ proposal, such as his pledge that city services won’t be cut despite hundreds of layoffs, the mayor was able to escape the budget season without significant challenge.

The council unanimously approved Sanders’ plan to layoff up to 290 city employees in order to spend money on big-ticket expenses that have long gone neglected at the city, such as a multibillion-dollar employee retirement costs and a sizable backlog of overdue construction projects.

“The mayor is heartened because the council’s budget was largely untouched from his original proposal,” Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said, adding that the mayor will formally announce whether he will sign or veto the council’s revisions Wednesday. The law requires that a final budget must in place by June 30.

The city’s robust earnings in taxes and other revenue allowed officials to more easily locate the money that Sanders wanted to set aside for the pricey obligations this year, as the size of the spending plan jumped about $85 million from last year.

Although, many council members were frustrated with Sanders because of his guarantee that the cuts he proposed for libraries, parks and other programs to harvest the remaining money he needed were not going to impact the levels of service residents receive.

“I don’t think he knows,” said Andrea Tevlin, the council’s independent budget analyst. “I don’t think anyone can definitely say, but from my experience, it looks like there will be reduction in services.”

The service-level issue became the major point of dispute between the mayor and council this year, as Sanders offered two competing definitions of “service level” to suit the conversation.

When he claimed service levels would stay the same under his plan, he is referred to the most basic measurements of the city’s output. These include: library hours; recreation center hours; or the fact that residents can expect to still rely on curbside trash collection and for police officers and firefighters “to respond in the case of an emergency.”

But Sanders acknowledged that he can’t correctly gauge service levels and he has plans for overhauling the way the city measures them. Instead of measuring the city’s fire protection on the number of firefighters, fire stations, or fire engines, the city would look at indicators such as the cardiac arrest survival rate in San Diego or the rate for containing a fire to its room of origin. The method would emphasize “outcomes” over “outputs,” Sanders said.

The contrasting definitions left council members baffled. Within a few weeks of battling over semantics, the council abandoned its fight over the service level issue for the purposes of figuring it into the 2008 budget, deciding that the discussion was better suited for another day.

Erik Bruvold, CEO of the San Diego Institute for Policy Research, a think tank funded by former mayoral candidate and businessman Steve Francis, contends that the issue was pushed off because the council didn’t have the information it needed to debate the mayor.

Faced with a mayor who controlled the information that was provided to inquiring council members and a two-month window for reviewing the entire budget, the council didn’t have the opportunity, he said.

“The council could have benefited from a longer process,” Bruvold said

The council did make some minor alterations to the mayor’s plan by agreeing to increase spending in a variety of areas after finance staff revised their forecast to include additional revenue for the city’s coffers. Among the council’s priorities was the addition of employees to clear brush in order to stave off fires, combat graffiti throughout the city, and assist the council’s Audit Committee in its review of city finances.

The council also decided not to condition the budget on the mayor’s projections for raising money through land sales and the creation of a tourism marketing district that, if approved by hoteliers, would free up hotel tax money for the city’s everyday budget. The council voted to remove those contingent windfalls from the annual budget and to spend the forecasted funds from those ideas once they were ultimately approved months from now.

In addition, the council reinstituted bookkeeping practices that counted all city employees’ roster positions after Tevlin argued it allowed the city to monitor staffing levels from year to year. Initially, Sanders did not want to count the 177 part-time employees on the city’s books or the 19 police officers that it would take to staff a new substation in Carmel Valley, but the council decided to account for those Monday.

Tevlin said she thought there was room for improvement this budget season, but that her office and council members significantly shaped the debate over the city’s spending priorities through the weeks’ worth of studying, reports and public hearings that scrutinized Sanders’ plans.

“We’ve pushed back on a lot of those issues that were significant, and they have responded to getting us that information,” Tevlin said.

Tevlin noted that the council successfully persuaded the mayor to provide better information about Sanders’ streamlining effort, known as “business process reengineering.” The initiative, which aims to cut costs while maintaining or improving a department’s performance, has been criticized by some council members and employees as being mysterious, but Tevlin said the mayor has been open to allowing more scrutiny.

In another heated corner of the budget debate, the council sided with Sanders over the layoffs the mayor had slated for the city’s legal department. City Attorney Mike Aguirre had chided Sanders for proposing that 17 deputy lawyers be laid off, claiming the decision was retribution for the city attorney’s criticism of Sanders’ handling of the Sunroad Enterprises office building near Montgomery Field airport.

Aguirre took his cause to the council for a third time Monday, but to no avail.

“This has nothing to do with the budget crisis and everything to do with retaliation,” Aguirre said at an afternoon press conference he called before the budget hearing.

With the exception of Councilman Tony Young and Councilwoman Donna Frye, the council approved 14 of those layoffs, arguing that Aguirre failed to correct an archaic budgeting practice last year when other departments did.

Some council members made note that they were dissatisfied with Aguirre’s performance and his overtly independent style, but Councilman Kevin Faulconer said he voted for the layoffs even though he found Aguirre’s office to be “extremely responsive” to his needs.

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

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