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Chula Vista city leaders are preparing for Thursday’s meeting where the city’s politicians will finally confront a very large deficit their staff has been warning about.

The city manager has already put out a list of potential cutbacks. I’ve never seen so many cuts to public safety services, libraries, recreation centers and other personnel proposed at a city before.

Scott Tulloch

I had a chance today to talk to interim City Manager Scott Tulloch. He’s doing something interesting. The $20 million budget gap he’s trying to fill in the next month isn’t in this year’s budget. The deficit Tulloch and his deputies are facing this year is down to $4 million. In other words, they could get through this year with small cuts, but next year is so ominous, they have decided to try to make the adjustments needed now — several months before the budget is actually due.

Chula Vista may have been remarkably adept at getting itself into a horrible mess. But the city’s staff seems also remarkably willing to face reality and deal with it. This wasn’t always the case, of course, and it could still change. And we’ll see if the politicians share the enthusiasm to deal with everything.

Why, exactly, is Tulloch proposing to set next year’s budget now, even though the budget isn’t due until the summer?

People are going to lose their jobs — perhaps dozens, he said. If they set the budget now and prepare for that, those employees will have more than the standard two weeks to prepare and look for other jobs.

On the other hand, short-timer syndrome is often best kept to as short of a time as possible.

Anyway, it is admirable to prepare for a storm in advance like this. Actually, it’s just rational and something we should expect, but when it comes to local governments, rational decisions are often extraordinary.

And he had even more reality to bring home for us. This isn’t just a yearly problem he said. It isn’t something that will be OK.

“It’s a structural issue. It’s not just a problem with next year. I think we need to reorganize the city and how it goes about its business. We can just sell land or take out a loan. That’s not a good solution if you think it’s going to go on for several years more,” Tulloch said.

I asked Tulloch if he thought the city would be fundamentally less safe if the City Council chose to cut the firefighters and police officers the interim city manager has proposed laying off. His staff has proposed cutting 34 full-time positions from the Police Department, for instance. And it will “mean moderate to significant reductions in many areas of service.”

So does he think Chula Vistans will be less safe?

“Yes I do,” Tulloch said.

Hooray for frankness.

And how about the city’s debt obligations?

As we’ve pointed out, this is a huge deal. The city borrowed millions to build facilities like new police and fire stations and a new City Hall. But the funds to pay off those loans came largely from one-time development fees. These fees, of course, aren’t being collected anymore now that the housing boom has turned into a bust.

I asked Tulloch if part of the budget trouble had to do with this phenomenon. He said that it wasn’t a major factor. Yet.

He said the city must get 600 new housing units every year to be able to make the payments they need to make. Right now, for this year, they’ve approved 25 units. An apartment complex north of the Olympic training center might bring on hundreds of new units, but if it doesn’t go through, there could be more trouble.

He said that the $20 million deficit they’re dealing with now will be significantly higher if no housing development comes through to help the city pay those loans off.

Tulloch said they could make transfers from other development fee pools but that ultimately, the city’s general fund would have to carry the burden.

The City Council will have to grapple with this, too.

“We’re getting ready to talk to them about this issue,” Tulloch said.

SCOTT LEWIS

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