Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007 | It can’t be a very politically advantageous thing to propose laying off firefighters and police officers when the air has barely cleared from one of the worst wildfires this county has seen.

But you have to admire someone when they just don’t care what is politically advantageous.

Chula Vista’s new city manager, David Garcia, is saying what many Chula Vista officials were flatly denying or recklessly spinning just a year ago.

The city is in serious financial trouble. It is structurally unbalanced and has one year to figure out how to repair that structure before it joins the ignoble class of municipalities that attract national attention — and lose their credit rating — because of their extraordinary fiscal woes.

Those no longer are the conclusions of people scouring Chula Vista’s books from the outside. They are Garcia’s warnings.

And he’s put together a list of the things residents should expect to lose because of the troubles.

The list is staggering. I’ve been looking at agency budgets and memorandums for several years and never have I seen a list of service cuts this long and ambitious before. Most government officials become masters at finding ways to hide the pain. They never want people to know what the consequences of past actions really are. They may say they have a deficit or budget trouble. But they never lay out what it would take to fix it.

Garcia has done just that. And this is just to get through the year.

Chula Vista, like the rest of the county, just weathered a wildfire that made global news. Yet the city had no emergency manager — that position is vacant and remains so because of a rigid hiring freeze Garcia implemented soon after he took charge in June.

Unless the Chula Vista City Council can find another way to score some cash, Garcia has said it will have to close a fire station and lay off six police officers. He has several firefighters on the list of cuts, including a deputy chief and a nine-member urban search and rescue team. He says the city will have to outsource the fire communications services and lay off a police officer assigned to the K-9 unit and another who specializes in white collar crime.

Managers are seeing their budgets eliminated. Others are being invited — lured — into an early retirement. Garcia’s list includes 195 specific cuts and 105 layoffs.

The list goes on and on — you can see it here. Everything from a morning swim class and summer day camps to hours at the South Chula Vista Library are on the chopping block.

This all started this summer when I and others noticed an incredible change of tone (candor … wow!) coming out of the brand new City Hall in the city of San Diego’s large neighbor to the south. It hadn’t been that long ago that Chula Vista officials scorned and chided critics who had the gall to suggest the city was in trouble. It was truly ridiculous to suggest that the remarkable housing boom might end and no longer be able to finance the frenzy of public spending.

But there’s a new mayor and a new city manager in Chula Vista.

“I noticed right away that the financial condition of the city was significantly worse than had been presented in the budget that was adopted before I came,” Garcia said.

Garcia, in a few months, has made official what many suspected but were never able to get the city’s government officials to say.

“We were using one-time revenues to pay for ongoing expenses,” Garcia said.

Take a moment and consider what he means. The city largely paid for hundreds of new employees, a new City Hall, a new police station, a new park and other gourmet government goodies with the revenue it received from the fees developers paid to build new homes in the city. Well, that, and just plain old loans.

“We were just finishing those new facilities and we had to start paying to operate them. But the development of new homes abruptly stopped, causing unprecedented drops in revenue for the city,” Garcia said. “It was a perfect storm of financial problems.”

He went on.

“Chula Vista is carrying a significant amount of debt and major debt obligations. When you roll that into our ongoing operating expenses — that’s basically what our problem is,” Garcia said.

Then I brought up a pet issue. More than a year ago, I had gotten a bit aggravated. The Union-Tribune had just done a story about how San Diego city police officers were looking for and getting jobs in Chula Vista with the promise of higher pay. It was true. Chula Vista promised police substantial raises every year for the next five years.

How well off could Chula Vista actually be? Would it ever have the same kind of financial trouble the city of San Diego had, the kind that forces you not to give cops raises?

Sure enough, Chula Vista was ramping up the payments to its own pension plan as rapidly as anyone in the state. That’s fine — as long as you can afford it.

Turns out Chula Vista can’t.

Again, Garcia:

“We have some of the highest salaries in San Diego. Pension payments are a function of salaries. I don’t mind paying the highest salaries because I think we have some of the best people in the county. But frankly, we’re in a financial crisis now,” he said. They all had to do something about it, Garcia insisted.

Wow, a government official admitting that an entity is paying its employees quite a bit more than the norm? This is really new ground here.

When I suggested that it might be hard for Chula Vista to pay its police officers what it promised, I was engulfed in criticism, as were others.

Garcia, though, now has a proposal for the City Council: He’s going to ask them to allow him to renegotiate the contracts with the police officers and the city’s other employees. He’s going to ask that they accept a 2 percent raise this year as opposed to the 4 percent raise that they were promised. The city’s police and firefighters will not be accustomed to this. Over the last four years, their salaries have increased 25 percent across the board.

Chula Vista is deep in debt.

And the people that loan it money have noticed. The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s lowered the city’s credit rating in September. Garcia said he has promised Standard & Poor’s and others that within a year, things would be different.

If they are not, like many of the people who bought homes inside the city, Chula Vista is going to be fielding some uncomfortable calls from its lenders.

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

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