Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008 | San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders took time out of his budget cutting Thursday to talk with me about those efforts. For those who don’t know, Sanders earlier this month used a speech to the San Diego County Taxpayers Association to announce the immediate need for $43 million in mid-year budget cuts. And that could just be the beginning of the city’s woes.

He has asked each city department head to bring to him proposed cuts of 10 percent of their budget. Those proposals are rolling in now, and Sanders plans to release a package of proposed cuts to the public Wednesday.

Here are some of my questions, and the mayor’s answers.

You talked yesterday about shuttering city facilities, including libraries. Are you considering cutting entire programs?

That is where we are looking at. This isn’t the same old tinkering that we’ve always done. You can’t just continue to cut a maintenance worker here, a supervisor here, we are looking at whole programs.

We are going to have to look at what we think is absolutely critical to the city’s operation, and to the public, the core services. Those would be basically the aspects of public safety that are uniformed. You’ve got to have uniformed cops out there; you’ve got to have uniformed firefighters and paramedics.

You have to have our water facilities providing clean, safe water. There is only so much you can cut from some areas before you break the critical part. We have to make sure the critical city services are maintained. But everything else after that, we will judge it by policy, we will judge it by use, judge it by how it impacts the community. We will be probably cutting some programmatic things. … We have talked about libraries. We may be shutting down or suspending service of some of our smaller libraries.

We are looking at how we make determinations on which park and rec programs to cut out. We’ll keep the ball fields open, we’ll keep the soccer fields open, but are there park and recs that don’t have a huge array of services; are people availing themselves to them? Do we shut down the rec center, but keep the ball fields open? Those are the types of questions we are asking.

I know that most of the social services in the city are provided by the county, but are the social services that the city does provide — like the homeless shelter — considered core services?

We provide a homeless shelter, we provide some of the homeless services. We’ll continue to do that. I don’t think we can cut that back much more.

You have these deficits that are looming, very possibly significantly beyond $43 million going into next (fiscal) year. The numbers seem to range from $80 million to as much as $120 million …

Now you are using numbers from people who make up numbers.

(Former mayoral candidate Steve Francis’ San Diego Institute for Policy Research has estimated that the fiscal year 2010 budget deficit could be as high as $128 million if the San Diego region is hit with a significant recession.)

Do you think numbers given by Steve Francis, for example —

What we believe, is our budget gap for next year will be between $40 and $50 million. Everything we fix this year cuts into next year’s gap. We’re still going to have a significant gap next year, I’m not saying we’re not. But I don’t know where this $120 million — I think people are mixing apples and oranges and using new numbers all the time. We’re not trying to fudge numbers, I’m not doing this for drill. We are putting together the best estimates we have.

Given the $43 million number, and given that cutting 10 percent from public safety is untenable, are we looking at cutting other programs by 20 percent to make up for the fact that you can’t cut much from public safety?

We are not just saying this is a straight-across-the-board 10 percent cut. We are saying some departments might lose 2 or 3 percent — public safety. Other departments might lose 15 percent. We don’t know that yet.

What are you willing to do on the revenue side?

There is not much we can do on the revenue side. No. 1, you can’t raise taxes, that takes a vote of the people. There is no election that any of that could be docketed for. And most people would suggest you couldn’t get 66 percent of anybody in the world to raise taxes right now. So that is off the table. As far as fees … the city has a policy to get full cost recovery with fees, that is something we don’t do. We will be looking at raising some fees. But we’re not going to fee our way out of this.

You have said the city has 600 vacancies. Can you give me a sense of how many of these vacant positions you can cut?

I don’t know all that they are. But they do include police and fire, and the vacancies they have. And we are not probably going to take those away. We’ve got some critical positions we have to hire with special expertise. There may be a certain type of thing we need in water or wastewater, where you have to have a person who does that.

We have some positions that raise revenue, just by the function of the position. But, by and large, we have been saving vacancies for quite a long time. In August we stopped hiring except on special occasions. That is how the number (of vacant positions) has built up. We will try to use as many of those as we can. But many of the cuts we have been talking about over the past few days are real people, not vacancies.

An old tactic used by bureaucrats when it comes to budget-cutting time — if you are a cagey department head — is to offer up the most popular programs that you know politically are not feasible to cut.

First of all, I told them if they did that they are at their own peril. All the department heads are unclassified. I’ve got resignation notices on file for everybody. And this is not game playing time.

And by and large we have not seen that. When the park and rec director (Stacey LoMedico) came in, she has a lot of cuts, all of them very honest cuts. We’ve had a few people come in and use things that I don’t think are as genuine as I like, and I’ve sent them right back. This is really not game playing time. You know, I was with the city for a long time.

I know how to play the games, I’ve been involved in the games. When I was with the Police Department, I saw how they worked. So I know when someone is gaming me, and we’re not going to play that way. If we need new team members because some people think they are going to game us, then we will get new team members. But we are in this all together, and we owe more to our employees than to play games like that.

— Interview by DAVID WASHBURN

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