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Thursday, March 6, 2008 | What five things does San Diego need most? My professional life was spent in management and government, so that background is going to be the primary driver for my comments.

I. Management/City Employees

The balance of my thoughts may not be in order of importance, but this point is first for a reason. There will always be problems. Whether it’s finances, natural disasters, mistakes, relationships or crime, problems are a part of everyday life. Unfortunately, you can’t always control them, so what happens in life is not as important as how you deal with it.

Just as we all deal with our own personal problems every day, government too must address or manage its problems.

I’ll let others debate the more effective forms of government to manage the city. I’ve been around long enough to know it’s the quality of the individuals filling the roles that is important. Pete Wilson was the strongest, most effective and influential mayor San Diego has had. His force of personality, vision and intelligence didn’t need the formal mantle of strong mayor to run the city.

Conversely, there are those who don’t have those abilities and the full range of duties and responsibilities of a formal position are unfulfilled. After an incredible run of effective managers over the years, in the last decade the mayor and council chose to keep ineffective managers because they pandered to their needs. All this within the bounds of the council-manager form of government designed to avoid just that scenario. As a result, we are where we are today because of their inability to manage the problems.

Now, within the strong-mayor form of government, it is essential that the mayor hire a strong and effective manager to run the day-to-day business of the city. Just as the city manager wasn’t free from politics in the council-manager form of government, this manager won’t be either. BUT he or she has to be a stronger hand than is now the case.

City employees have had a tough time in the last seven or eight years. Lack of a strong city manager and clear, centralized direction of day-to-day operations and an unprecedented exodus of management talent and corporate knowledge are two issues that have adversely affected city employees and how they do their jobs. But the worst that has happened is how they have been unfairly vilified because of the pension issue.

Study after study shows that job satisfaction ranks first ahead of money and all other considerations related to work. Up until this decade, San Diego was recognized and emulated nationally for their management and innovation. City employees were an important part of the award-winning and innovative programs copied and praised across the nation. Employees were valued and felt good about themselves and their work.

Then came the pension controversy and everything changed. Employees were criticized daily in the newspaper and long-planned retirements were threatened.

Outside of a handful of management employees, city employees had nothing to do with the decisions leading to the pensions that are the subject of the controversy. Nearly 60 percent of the tax-supported employees are police and fire employees; people who put their lives on the line for us all every day. The large majority of the remaining employees have dedicated their professional lives to serving the public.

The scenario reminds me of the Vietnam War and how the returning veterans were treated: vilified rather than being treated as the heroes they were. They didn’t have anything to do with the decisions leading to Vietnam either. Thankfully, the citizens of our country recognized their mistake and now celebrate the brave young men and women who serve their country, regardless of the popularity of the conflict.

City employees deserve no less.

II. Prioritize Programs/Expenditures

In the private sector, when a company develops a product that is desirable, it sells well and results in revenue to the company. Supply and demand works well. In the public sector, the demand for government services will always outweigh government’s ability to supply those services. Consequently, in government, it is essential to prioritize programs and expenditures.

As important as prioritizing expenditures is, the dialogue and infrastructure to reach a consensus on what is most important has been strangely missing. Mindless “across-the-board” budget cuts have been implemented in the recent past and continue today. Economic development programs that bring tens of millions of dollars to San Diego’s economy annually are being cut at the same rate as one time a year community events.

A process to engage San Diegans in this issue is essential. Citizens must have a structured opportunity to express their needs and decide how and at what level they want to pay for meeting those needs. Polling, workshops, interactive websites, community forums are all important tools, but just showing up and giving citizens their three minutes to vent isn’t adequate. I want to see a plan for arriving at our priorities and funding levels that includes meaningful input from the public.

III. Adequate Tax Base

There are really two issues here.

1. The first are the laws and formulas in the state of California that determine how our tax dollars are allocated. If this is a new issue to you, you probably think your sales and property taxes are evenly distributed throughout the state based on population. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our tax dollars are used to subsidize schools and government services in jurisdictions to the north and it amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars. Periodically there are discussions to address this issue among our local and state legislators, but it is a difficult issue. Restoring our fair share of taxes to San Diegans would mean taking the money away from those that have it now.

I believe a prudent course of action would be for government and the media to partner together to educate San Diegans on this issue and speak in one voice through our vote and our legislators that San Diego must receive its fair share of tax dollars.

2. Even if we were successful in gaining our fair share of tax dollars, demand will still exceed government’s ability to supply services. It’s not my intent to address whether or not our tax base is adequate or not. Once citizens have the opportunity to prioritize government programs and services, they are going to have to decide what services they want and how much they’re willing to pay for it.

Which leads me to my next point:

IV. Political Leadership

It’s the rare politician that doesn’t campaign on providing more service, new programs or a grand building of some sort and promise to pay for it by cutting government spending while cutting or not raising taxes at the same time. There’s a reason for their approach: They get elected.

The city of San Diego’s Independent Budget Analyst recently wrote an excellent report addressing the “structural budget deficit” facing the city of San Diego. Unfortunately, the structural deficit described in the report is not a recent phenomenon.

The current situation has its roots in the economic downturn in the early 1990s and the state’s subsequent raid on the city’s revenues to mitigate their own financial problems. Rather than reducing expenses to match the revenues, services were maintained through the use of one-time revenues, not fully funding programs and not providing funds for cost increases. Despite the growing structural deficit, programs were expanded and new programs and facilities were added without any new funding sources (no one has labeled them illegal yet). All of these practices that contribute to the problem are continuing today.

It’s time for the elected officials and candidates to be honest and straight forward in addressing the cost of government services and the tax base necessary to support them.

V. Vision

San Diego is a great city. The weather, the location by the ocean, the diversity and the people all help to define us. When I started the curbside recycling programs in the 1980s and led the city’s efforts to reduce beach and bay pollution earlier this decade, both programs were successful beyond anyone’s expectations.

Recycling participation hovered at nearly 100 percent, even though people initially saw separating their trash as a bother, and beach and bay postings and closures due to pollution were reduced by over 60 percent in just three years. Why were they both so successful?

Both programs were supported by strong public relations programs to educate the public why the programs were needed and what the public could do to help. San Diegans made both programs successful because they had the opportunity to be part of the solution.

City government and its problems are but a small part of San Diego, yet it’s what has defined San Diego for the past four years. “Pension” has been the focal point. How to fund it, how to take it away, how to change it. Fine. Let’s have that dialogue; but where is the perspective? What is our vision for San Diego? It can’t just be “solve the pension problem.”

So I’ll end with this: Where is the vision and where are the support programs to engage the public and make that vision a reality?

Ernie Anderson is not your typical bureaucrat. The six-time Emmy Award winner started and managed the city of San Diego’s successful curbside recycling program in the 80s; won the Government Finance Officers’ highest national award for designing and implementing a program that saved the city well over $100 million in the 90s; and revitalized and managed the city’s efforts early this decade that reduced beach closures and postings due to pollution by more than 60 percent. What are the five things you think San Diego needs? Write your piece and e-mail it here.

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