Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008 | The tensions that have been simmering between San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council over how best to close the city’s gaping midyear budget deficit spilled into council chambers Wednesday as a second public hearing on the issue ended with no resolution.
Sanders, the first speaker at the afternoon hearing, urged immediate action on a myriad of cuts — including the closure of several libraries and recreation centers — he has proposed to close the $43-million budget hole. He further ratcheted up the rhetoric by telling council members that every week they do not act on his proposals costs the city $330,000.
And the mayor took aim at Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin, who on Monday recommended that the libraries and recreation centers stay open at least until the city can complete a comprehensive review of all city facilities sometime early next year.
“I recommend immediate action,” Sanders said. “She recommends procrastination.”
City Council had and all-day hearing on the proposed cuts last week, and scheduled a third meeting for Monday — when council members said it is likely they will take action.
With his comments, Sanders echoed those made by Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone last week, that Tevlin was avoiding difficult decisions in order to give council members — whom she reports to — political cover.
Tevlin, Goldstone said then, seemed to be “protecting her bosses instead of being truly independent” by not suggesting more detailed cuts that might disproportionately affect individual City Council districts.
Last week, Tevlin said Goldstone’s comments were a “shame.” And at the end of Wednesday’s hearing, council members laid into Sanders and Goldstone, saying they were the ones playing politics.
“Some of the comments in the paper, and reiterated by the mayor today, were inappropriate and frankly overtly political and divisive,” said Councilwoman Toni Atkins from the dais. “I am going to ask that we tone it down a bit.”
Atkins, along with other council members, went on to praise Tevlin — citing her 30-year career in government, including several as a budget director, as evidence of her ability to make tough decisions.
Said Councilman Tony Young: “Bottom line is we are going to make sure that no one attacks our IBA.”
Councilwoman Donna Frye chastised Sanders for leaving the meeting right after speaking, and thus avoiding more an hour of largely angry public comment. “It would be nice, just once, to see someone delivering bad news to not only deliver the bad news, but hear your input in person at a public hearing,” Frye told the audience from the dais.
Dozens of city residents addressed the proposed cuts during Sanders’ absence Wednesday. The mayor, along with several of his department heads, did stay for the majority of the public comment during last week’s hearing.
Sanders’ proposed cuts in the current year budget — brought on by a rapidly deteriorating economy — include closing seven libraries and nine recreation centers, and halving the number of recruits in the city’s police and fire academies. He also proposed cutting two crews from the Fire-Rescue Department’s daily rotation. All told, Sanders has proposed eliminating 216 positions and laying off more than 100 employees.
The administration first became aware of the enormity of the budget gap in early October, after an already downward spiral of worldwide stock markets and other economic indicators began accelerating. Sanders announced the $43 million deficit on Oct. 15, and on Nov. 5, unveiled his proposed cuts. Since, the administration has released a five-year budget forecast that projects a deficit of $44 million in the 2010 fiscal year, and the possibility of a $96.5 million deficit in 2011.
Since he unveiled his proposed cuts, Sanders has sounded alarms about the need for City Council to act quickly. The administration’s pressure tactics in recent days — especially the releasing of the $330,000 in estimated losses per week — have been the most overt yet. Goldstone estimated the losses by taking six months of compensation and facilities costs associated with the budget items on the chopping block and dividing them by the number of weeks in the six-month period.
Tevlin has never bought into the idea that libraries and recreation centers need to be immediately closed. She has instead recommended other cost-saving measures like mandatory furloughs for city employees, and taking money on a one-time basis from the city’s library improvement fund. Sanders has consistently rejected Tevlin’s alternatives, saying they are short-term fixes that will force the city to cut even deeper in 2010, when the deficits are expected to be even bigger.
Council members are clearly angry with the mayor’s tactics, and say they deserve time to review Tevlin’s recommendations and explore options for cuts other than those proposed by Sanders.
“We are not trying to delay taking action,” said Atkins, who has overseen the public hearings as chairwoman of the Budget and Finance Committee. “But when the mayor has a couple months [to consider what to cut], we deserve a couple weeks.”
Atkins, as well as Tevlin and other council members, also say that the process could have been easier had Sanders shared information with them earlier. Instead, they say, the administration has waited until the last minute to provide answers to their questions and other information. Today, for example, Atkins said the administration dumped several memos on council members with only hours to go before the hearing.
Sanders spokesman Darren Pudgil denied that the administration was holding back information on purpose, saying a complex and condensed process does not give officials much lead time.
Meanwhile, opposition to the closure of libraries and recreation centers has gained steam among city residents. Demonstrations were held at libraries over the weekend, and the crowd packing council chambers Wednesday was at least as big, if not bigger, than the one at last week’s hearing.
And those who spoke — mainly against library closures — were no less impassioned. Some had extremely harsh words for Sanders, some recited poems. Others brought their children with them and one woman burst into tears at the podium.
The most popular speaker among council members was a teenage girl who spoke against the proposed elimination of the city’s swim team. She said her goal was not only to become a better swimmer, but “one day become mayor of San Diego.”