So I had a few thoughts about last night’s State of the City speech. Rather than try to organize them into a narrative, I thought I could just go step by step.
First off, the best line of the night:
If you take nothing else away from this evening, hear this: There is no role here for the forces of obstruction and denial, or for selfish posturing by those who think they do their share by suggesting sacrifices others can make.
Worst line of the night (the very next thing the mayor said):
Their practice of postponing our day of reckoning has only succeeded in digging us into deeper holes each year.
The mayor is hardly one to gripe about pushing off the pain to later years. This was truly the first year he ever really faced reality.
This was, by far, the worst theme of the night: His continued insistence that he’s dealing with the problems of past city leaders.
We get it. You’re way cooler than the guys before you, J-Man.
But you’ve been mayor now for more than three years, at what point does this become your pile of junk? In three years, if we’re still talking about Dick Murphy, I’m going to give it all up and dive for lobsters.
Not sure what I’m talking about? Here’s another line.
Any discussion of our financial welfare begins, inevitably, with the ever-widening crater our annual contribution to the pension and benefits systems makes in our budget each year. The size of those payments is the legacy of previous administrations, which recklessly underfunded the pension system so they could continue to expand popular programs and give out pay raises without accepting responsibility for those costs.
Once again, Scott Peters, Dick Murphy, Jim Madaffer, Toni Atkins, Brian Maienschein — I think it’s fair to say the bus has run over them and moved on. But this mayor has also given out some pay raises without identifying how we are going to pay for them in the long term and this mayor has also put off any serious reckoning with City Hall’s structural deficit.
Perhaps in the 2011 State of the City speech, he will be cursing himself.
They gambled that a rising economy would cover their tracks. But it couldn’t, even in good times.
Now recession has compounded their mistakes.
I know, I hate them. Arrgh! Kind of compounded the mayor’s own mistakes though too. He, after all, put off dealing with the city’s structural deficit in the last three years in any significant way and is now dealing with the consequences.
OK, enough of that. Let’s get to the meat of the speech.
This year, we will sit down with all five of our public employee unions to negotiate contracts. We’ll be seeking long-term solutions in our retirement benefits in a manner that balances the interests of employees and taxpayers, and brings our benefits into alignment with our economic reality.
Wow, maybe we were just transported to 2005? Is he going to say this every year? Let’s leave this in the believe-it-when-we-see-it file.
It wasn’t all golden oldies last night. He also seemed to prepare San Diegans for the fact that he’s going to ask them for money.
And this gets us to our Sneakers of the Night — the top two things the mayor said whose significance you might not have appreciated.
No. 1 Sneaker of the Night: Trash Fee Cometh
The mayor’s mention of “trash pick up” as one of the services San Diegans “expect and demand” but are difficult to maintain now that tax dollars are “being diverted by the state or siphoned off by expensive mandates and pension payments.”
And then, the kicker:
As requested by the City Council, we are finalizing a comprehensive fee policy that attempts to ensure the city recovers its full costs from those who use its specialized services.
Asking the public for more money — whether it’s extra coins for a parking meter or a few dollars more to dump trash in a landfill — is almost always an occasion for controversy. I can’t guarantee that some people won’t gripe about it. But I can guarantee that the fees we receive will be used only to recover the costs of the programs they go toward.
Hmmm. Trash pick up. Dumping trash at the landfill and fees. I think we have now been introduced to the concept of a new trash fee. But it was such a muddled plea that the mayor could have reasonable deniability this is what he’s suggesting. In other words, this is a trial balloon.
No. 2 Sneaker of the Night: Schoobrary’s Origins
Remember when the mayor told me that some kind of magical event would have to take place to save the idea of the new downtown library would need some kind of magic? The mayor claims that this schoobrary idea may very well be the magical “rabbit in the hat” needed to resurrect the downtown library project.
But here’s the sleeper. Read this closely (emphasis mine):
With the expiration date for a state library grant fast approaching, I didn’t’ think anyone could pull a rabbit out of this hat. Then the San Diego Unified School District came forward with a proposal to use two floors of the library as a 300-student high school.
There seems to be very little evidence that downtown needs a new high school — maybe an elementary school, but not a high school. First of all, there already is a high school downtown, and few high-school age kids moved into the area during the boom.
I’m having a hard time believing the school system did come up with the idea. It seemed pretty obvious to me that library boosters, desperate to save the monumental idea, saw the $2.1 billion school bond pass and realized the money could save their dream. A school would add value to the downtown library project that not enough people, apparently, thought was valuable enough to actually do.
I could be wrong. But it’s very interesting that the mayor would emphasize that no, this is all the school system’s idea.
Hey, the J-Man says, sounds interesting. Better check it out. One thing, after the speech, I had a chance to grab the mayor and ask him about the library. We didn’t really get to the heart of the matter, but he did repeat a common myth: That the new library is financially viable because the new library could be staffed with the same number of people who run the current downtown library.
This is absurd.
We’ve been over this before. The city once contacted a consultant as part of a study about this.
This is from a story we wrote in 2005. We asked that same consultant if the new library could be staffed with the same number of employees as the old:
Bob Rohlf, the Minneapolis-based consultant cited in the staff report, confirmed in an interview that it was, indeed, possible. However, he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“You could. I would hope you don’t simply because the staff will be worked to death,” he said. Rohlf also said it was nearly impossible to predict what staffing level will be adequate without knowing how many visitors the library will attract.
Now, on to the coolest thing the mayor talked about: the solar initiative. Maybe I don’t understand it as well as I should, but it sounds fantastic. It is this.
Property owners within the city who participate will be provided upfront financing to install solar or other renewable energy-generating devices. Participants agree to be part of an assessment district and will pay for the cost of the improvements, plus interest, over a 20-year period on their property tax bill. The obligation to pay the assessment will transfer to the new owner if the property is sold during the 20-year repayment period.
In other words, solar panels, financed on your property bill — and if your sell your digs, the person who buys them buys the obligation to pay it off. Sounds like a pretty easy way to jump aboard the solar bandwagon, and to boost the value of your property, and to lower your energy bills (though raise your property taxes).
I’m liking it. And if I had any money or sense, I’d start a solar panel installation company. Unfortunately, I have very little talent building and installing things. I would undoubtedly make things worse and I appear to be committed to the lucrative world of nonprofit journalism.
But I’m not the only one who thinks it would be a good idea to get into this industry with that kind of an incentive. And I guess that’s the point.
Finally, on volunteering.
The mayor made a point to highlight the need for volunteers city wide to step up and keep us clean and orderly. He warned the city’s unions to back off their insistence that some jobs just cannot be done by volunteers.
He said if you see litter on the ground, pick it up.
Watch this theme. Watch it grow. The fact is, if you care about a city service, you will have to step up and protect it yourselves.
Look at the owners of hotels across the city. Follow their lead. They saw it coming. They had a service they liked that was supported by the city. The service was the marketing efforts performed by the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The hotel owners saw the writing on the wall. The city would eventually need to cut back drastically. What would officials cut? ConVis would be done, trust me. So, seeing what was coming, the hoteliers passed their own little tax. I wasn’t so hot on it but you have to admire the foresight.
Fact is, if you care about something in the city, you better find a way to protect it. Whether that means you put together a posse of parents to watch over the skate parks or join up to pass a little business improvement tax so you and your fellow business owners can pay someone to clean up litter — the city isn’t going to be there for you.
This is what the mayor didn’t quite say.
But it’s what he meant.