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Wednesday, March 5, 2008 | Five Things San Diego NEEDS Most. Hmmm.

Well, let’s try these (not in order of importance): reality, honesty and contrition, judgment and resolve, courage, humor and hope.

I. On Reality

We’re broke. I think it would be OK to abandon the fakey-fakey stuff.

The Union-Tribune reported the city knew months ahead that there was land subsidence in the Mt. Soledad area. Slide monitors were put in. Geologists were sent. Studies were done. They knew what was going on. Shoring was not done. Does anyone think we didn’t shore up that area because we just didn’t care about it?

Are we as a city that callous, indifferent or stupid to not see real danger looking us in the face? No. We are broke. We didn’t shore up the area because there was no money available to do so. It’s the same reason we don’t do brush management for fires, keep our libraries open, pay for the Veteran’s Day parade, or provide swim access for inner-city girls, just to name a few.

It’s why we do four or five, or however many, $150-million short-term financings; why we continue to raise our sewer and water fees even though we were the highest in those combined fees of any city on Earth several years ago, before the couple more fee enhancements that occurred thereafter. In her recent article in The New York Times entitled “Paradise of Lies,” Staceyann Chin writes, “…I was exhausted from the effort of keeping track of my elaborate falsehoods…”

As a city, we too are exhausted. It’s OK to just say it. We’re broke.

On the pension side, we have not financially recovered from anything. Last year, we contributed about $167 million. In that same year, a modest (and deserved) pay raise for police increased the pension deficit by at least $90 million. The 8 percent “interest” the city owes annually on the $1.2 billion pension deficit (assuming the gross number is that little) is at least $96 million.

That was just last year.

And, don’t tell me that last year and this year our pension investment geniuses are going to outperform the assumed 8 percent return on all assets in order to pay down the deficits and pay all the current “waterfall” goodies from “excess earnings.” Were that so, the pension geniuses would be working for Berkshire Hathaway, not the San Diego City Employees Retirement System. Look, the deficits are getting bigger and are just being re-amortized out over a longer period of time so your kids, their kids, and the kids of their kids can pay for this. Same games.

And, if the city’s financial condition ever does get better, all of whatever is improved will be swept into the pension vacuum sucker. Forever.

On the municipal union stuff, stop expecting the unions to solve the city’s problems. They are in business for themselves and their folks. They are not elected to take care of the public’s business.

They have the right to put their people in office, and when they do so, take every advantage of every thing that such power grants. If you are not willing to deal with them at that level, fold or leave.

On the “illegal benefits” — fight them or pay them. Those are your choices. My friend, City Attorney Mike Aguirre, thinks the people want to fight them. My friend Scott Peters thinks the people want to pay them.

Everybody else seems sort of mealy mouthed about where they stand on this. Pick a side. Either way, these unfunded deficits are daunting tasks — and likely to grow substantially in the future with additional wage increases for all city unions, and the reduction of city revenues from falling real estate values, recession related losses in sales taxes, and the growing wave of new retirees with enhanced entitlements. Get used to it.

II. On Honesty and Contrition

From Ted Kennedy to sport figures to corporate giants that have fallen on occasion, one lesson has emerged on the tablet of public measure: a real account of your screw ups, coupled with a genuine admission of sincere regret and sorrow, is almost always the shortest distance to recovering your public currency.

This is March of an election year so we should all anticipate some “March Madness.” But, when you look at the events that have led us to our horribly compromised condition, and the current politically correct defense that these were just “mistakes,” one thing you can be certain of is that the decisions made in 2002, et seq., particularly regarding the increased benefits for reduced pension contributions, and the phonying (is that a word?) of the city’s financial numbers on bond materials — neither were “mistakes.”

There was no “stumbling, bumbling, fumbling” in the run down the field on these. The folks involved knew what they were doing, knew the consequences and did it anyway for their own reasons. Few governments were as actively involved in the deal making that went into cooking up these two gems. Few governments received as complete, passionate, and timely a warning of the cliffs ahead as was ours.

In reviewing this conduct, the SEC was not wrong in the way they saw it, Kroll was not wrong in the way it saw it, and we were not wrong in the way we saw it. It wasn’t a mistake. It was worse than just miserably bad judgment. It was intentionally doing the wrong thing, thinking there would be no timely consequence.

This wouldn‘t even be an issue any more if the admissions and regrets thing had already occurred. But it hasn’t.

On Judgment and Resolve

“Judgment” is a big word that embodies principles, education and experience. Having it allows you to make good decisions.

We have some “Charter Changes” (oooo) coming at us. Many are intended to move more power to the mayor. It’s been suggested that this will allow those with business before the city to concentrate their efforts on just one person rather than having to “count to five.” One is easier than five, it is assumed. This is seen as a focus of the “old guard business establishment” whoever they are, and the “old guard Republican establishment” whoever they are.

With all the Charter Changes stuff fizzing about, a moment’s pause is in order. The law of unintended consequences has not been repealed. If, as suggested, some of these changes are intended so the business guys will only have to deal with one person rather than five, you should consider that those persons of other persuasions might also be capable of seeing the efficiency of the one is easier than five things, and may set their minds to occupying that seat for themselves. How would that work out for you? Perhaps we need a big engraving over the door of City Hall that reads, “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

I have one on both the Judgment and Resolve side. After the Cedar fire, then Fire Chief Jeff Bowman (one of the most un-squirrelly of the city’s department chiefs) recounted at a private lunch, that on the third day of that fire the wind changed at about the junction of Hwy 805 and Hwy 52.

It allowed his troops to cut some breaks to the fire which was quickly moving west. He said, candidly, had that not occurred, the fire force did not have the manpower or equipment to stop the fire, that there was nothing they could do to keep it from burning through Rose canyon to Hwy 5, up over the eastern side of La Jolla, and down the other side into La Jolla. He concluded that it would likely have burned La Jolla to the ground.

His biggest concern was that with the fire coming from the east on 52 the only ways out of La Jolla was on two-lane La Jolla Boulevard south and on two-lane La Jolla Shores Drive North. With 15,000 households he concluded there would be numerous fatalities. There was no evacuation plan. He thought we needed a much better equipment platform and an evacuation plan.

These were words that were not well received by anybody in the downtown triangle. But, I live in La Jolla, and I appreciated that he was willing to say them. He is still out there doing this type of advocacy. Last Sunday he was quoted in the U-T “Insight” section saying, “They write these reports, and they put them on a shelf. And then, they say that have no money. So nothing gets done.”

This guy is retired, and he has the courage and judgment that is so noticeable by its absence in those still showing up to have their attendance taken. We need more of this guy, and anybody else like him.

On the Resolve side, I’d like the City Council to determine if there is any need for them at all any more. With the exception of Councilwoman Donna Frye (who is seen as something of a pill for all her question-asking) it sure didn’t seem like they had any sense of a separate role in the governance of the city these past few years, other than the occasional vote to affirm something financial they knew little about, or the giving away of powers to the mayor — to which I don’t completely object since he at least seemed to have some idea of what to do with them.

But, my council friends, at least on the money side you might want to decide if you even care where the city’s money get’s spent and by whom. You might want to know who is counting the beans, when that gets done, and whether every bean gets counted. You’re the legislative branch of this government — sort of. It’s the kind of thing those bodies normally do. Someone might expect you to have done that job at sometime in the future.

Also on the Resolve side, I’d like to see the formation of more parallel government agencies to accomplish specific purposes. The financial architecture issues for the city will continue to be so overpowering, little will be accomplished beyond the daily goal of survival. The hotel folks recently created a new little government thing with a separate source of revenue to advance tourism. Good start. There could be one for

sports and recreation so those interested in that effort can do planning and funding models for those types of projects away from the financial baggage of the city. Likewise, for arts, libraries and parks. These entities could exist for those limited purposes with the power to plan, ballot and fund this type of infrastructure away from the city. These things just won’t happen otherwise.

III. On Courage

I’d like more of the smart folks in this city to openly debate in opposition stuff they see and hear that they know does not make good sense. I don’t know if we added both fluoride and lemming to our water, but there is clearly a lack of spirited and open debate about things that simply don’t have just one side.

I’d like the city’s IBA (“Independent Budget Analyst”) to act like one. Stop being part of the “cooperative and collaborative” element in government. Just do the job — emphasis on the “independent” part of your title.

I’d like the municipal union membership to (perhaps quietly) agree that the financial mess they are in was not caused solely by the political rascals at the city. I certainly don’t blame the rank and file, but don’t you think it’s pretty clear that your leadership, and their professionals, were aware that getting promises to fund big pensions so long as the city was not required to put any money in the pension fund was not workable, stupid and dangerous. I don’t mind the fact that you are angry at your situation, but at least some of that should be directed to your side of the table. It would make you more credible with the rest of the city. The Little Bo Peep thing is not very believable.

IV. On Humor and Hope

I got to this last one and I’m just kinda staring at it.

I guess I hope we find more things to be hopeful for in the future. If not, I hope things get funnier.

Pat Shea previously wrote a weekly column in voiceofsandiego.org called “For the Record” in 2006. What are the five things you think San Diego needs? Write your piece and e-mail it here.

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