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Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008 | The San Diego City Council on Monday saved a number of libraries and recreation centers, and two fire crews, from the budget ax, but in the process added what could be another $10 million to an already gaping budget deficit projected for next year.

Council, by a 6-1 margin, approved $37.3 million of the $43 million in cuts Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed to close an historic mid-year budget gap — but would not go along with Sanders’ most unpopular proposals, which included shuttering seven libraries and nine recreation centers, and cutting two fire crews from the Fire-Rescue Department’s daily rotation.

The vote was undoubtedly cheered by thousands of San Diegans who rely on the libraries and recreation centers in their daily lives, as well as the estimated 30 to 40 city employees who now won’t lose their jobs in January. However, it was harshly criticized by Sanders because it relied largely upon one-time savings, and at best put off further drastic cuts by six months.

“Libraries are an essential service to the community,” said Councilman Kevin Faulconer to applause in City Council Chambers.

Faulconer’s sentiment was echoed by most of his colleagues. “It’s really hard to sit and look at people and say we are going to shut down things you hold near and dear,” said Councilwoman Donna Frye. “We can at least postpone it for the present time.”

The lone no vote came from Councilman Jim Madaffer, who said he could not be party to “kicking the can down the road” on difficult decisions.

Not long after the vote, a visibly angry Sanders emerged from his office with several of his aides and a poster-board chart depicting a 2010 budget deficit growing from $44 million to $54 million because of council’s action. The difference between the cuts Sanders sought and those council authorized amounted to $5.7 million of the $43-million mid-year budget deficit. On an annual basis, the difference grows to $10 million, according to the Mayor’s Office.

“There will be no magic the next time around,” Sanders said during the impromptu news conference. “I had thought that they would quit fooling themselves, and make the tough decisions so the new council wouldn’t have to do that.”

Sanders could veto council’s resolution, but won’t. He said it would serve only as a symbolic action because the 6-1 council majority would easily override the veto.

Sanders’ angry response somewhat belies the fact that council went along with most of what he proposed including the halving of the number of recruits in they city’s police and fire academies as well as scores of layoffs. Council also agreed to eliminate more than 100 beach fire rings, which are popular among residents and tourists.

Councilman Tony Young, who proposed Monday’s the motion, characterized some of the mayor’s budget-cut proposals as “unimaginative,” and said that he his colleagues are willing to make difficult cuts, but are not willing to act hastily on proposals that are not backed up by sound analysis.

“To make a decision to shut down whole libraries and recreation centers based on just two weeks of discussion — the public deserves more than that,” Young said.

In making its decision, council largely followed recommendations by Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin. Specifically, Tevlin recommended that the libraries and recreation centers stay open until a comprehensive plan encompassing all of the facilities managed by those departments is brought to council.

And as per Tevlin’s recommendation, the $5.7-million will come almost entirely from one-time withdrawals from the city’s library reserve and hotel room-tax funds, according to the Mayor’s Office.

Council also directed Sanders to save money through a mandatory furlough of city employees and user fee increases that could be instituted in the current fiscal year. Administration officials have said that both would be difficult to accomplish in short order.

Keeping the libraries and recreation centers open will cost $1.7 million and $800,000, respectively, according to the Mayor’s Office. Keeping the fire crews operating will cost $1.6 million. Additionally, council refused to transfer to the general fund a total $1.5 million in infrastructure funds maintained by individual council offices, and left $68,000 in the budget to keep open rest rooms in Mission Bay Park that Sanders wanted closed.

The infrastructure funds consist of money individual council members can use on small infrastructure projects — like replacing stop signs — in their districts. Monday, Sanders referred to those funds as “slush funds,” and chided council members for not giving them up. The motion by Young stated that each council office “will use their funds as they direct to address the budget deficit.” Several council members did not return calls last night from a reporter seeking further explanation.

Monday’s vote brought at least to a temporary pause a period of intense turmoil over the budget that began in early October when the administration first became aware that the rapidly deteriorating economy was causing an enormous deficit. Sanders presented his package of cuts after asking every department head to slash 10 percent from their budgets.

Council held two hours-long public hearings this month, during which dozens of residents voiced their opposition to Sanders’ proposal. And in recent weeks residents have circulated petitions and held protests in front of popular libraries and recreation centers.

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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