I’m not letting this compromise idea go.
Actually, let me clarify, I’ve been most moved by the feedback I’ve gotten from individual city employees and concerned taxpayers.
We are being completely let down by some of the people claiming to lead these groups.
Let’s reiterate something and create the Pillars of How We Resurrect this City:
- Pillar I: We raise new revenues.
- Pillar II: We carve out — and fund — a respectable, sustainable, defined-benefit pension and compensation system for city employees.
- Pillar III: We make an unambiguous commitment to straight-forward, nuance-free, dollar-for-dollar, funding of all new projects, wage increases and expanded services.
Very simple sounding, yes, but unbelievably difficult to achieve.
Why? Here are the Five Truths our city faces. We must all admit these are true or there’s no point in going forward:
- Truth I: Taxpayers are justifiably frustrated with the city of San Diego after a litany of scandals, stories of greed and incompetence, and the eye-popping pensions of a select group of city workers.
- Truth II: Public employees deserve a defined-benefit pension.
- Truth III: Not enough assets have been set aside to fund the benefits that have been awarded to employees.
- Truth IV: The revenue stream the city has is comparatively low.
- Truth V: Most city employees are being compensated adequately and in these tough times could reasonably be expected to absorb cutbacks or freezes.
These are the truths we have to navigate to resurrect this city. And I dared in my original column to speculate that we were smart enough to do that.
Maybe I was wrong. I have often been accused of being cynical. Even my mother has said this. And I don’t deny that, at times, I am. But the cynics who lead this city now could make me look like a Pollyanna dancing and singing in a made-for-TV musical. When asked about what could happen in this city, they scoff like a bitter old drunkard.
I talked with the mayor’s spokesman, Darren Pudgil, the other day. I asked, very simply, whether the mayor would consider supporting a new trash tax or other increases in city fees and taxes if the employees would agree to the specific concessions in their retirement and compensation packages I listed.
“We’d have to see what the mood of the public is and if that in fact was something the public believes goes far enough,” Pudgil said.
Hmmm, OK. So how would the mayor determine what the “mood” of the public was? Would he put up one of those web polls?
“Well, from the community meetings the mayor is at,” Pudgil said. “If we got those concessions we’d have to reevaluate. But until then, it’s not something the mayor’s going to pursue.”
This is weak. The mayor can lead the people and the community to a compromise. He can point us toward a formula for success. But he can’t, on the one hand, argue that he’s open to raising fees once employee benefits have been brought into “balance” as Pudgil told me, and then not articulate what that balance is nor even go so far as to say that once it’s reached, he would do this or that.
Worse yet, the mayor has already decided there simply is no threshold employees could reach in order to throw the ball back into the taxpayers court.
The mayor has never said anything more eloquent than that one great line in his speech:
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.
Yet after making this beautiful point in his speech, he shrugged it off and argued that the employees themselves were the only ones expected to sacrifice in order to close the massive deficit City Hall is staring at this year.
Perhaps he really didn’t write his speech, only read it that one time and didn’t even listen to himself.
That kind of unhelpful stubbornness, though, isn’t constrained to the Mayor’s Office.
After my follow-up to the column ran, we received this response from Judie Italiano, the general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, the union of white-collar workers at City Hall and the largest of all the city’s labor groups.
She, at first, patted me on the head for my dreamy vision but had this rejoinder:
Where this runs astray is in the details and realities.
This proposes that all city employees unilaterally concede to demands without receiving anything in return except the promise that someday the mayor or City Council may consider some tax or fee, and maybe the voters will approve it. Or not. That is not a concession; it is capitulation. “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” just won’t cut it.
Funny how she’s so concerned about backing up this pledge with substance now. This is the same person whose union believes that one viable answer to our city’s financial problems and our underfunded pension plan is to put even fewer assets into that retirement system. So great is her trust in the promise that city workers will receive their pension benefits that she has no concern at all about actually putting money aside to pay for those benefits. When everything hits the fan, she believes this promise is all they’ll need to ensure they have the assets they need to retire comfortably.
Nah, for this, she needs a much clearer promise.
This is why the mayor’s weak silence is so infuriating. We could put the ball right back into her court. Everyone along the line — from taxpayer advocates, to business leaders, City Council members and the mayor — could pledge that if employees conceded this or that, they would not only stay neutral on, but actually support a new tax or fee arrangement.
Then what would Italiano say? Nothing. She’d have nothing to say except that she doesn’t care about the city’s financial position and that she’d rather watch services erode and employees lose their jobs than see any capitulation on the compensation and benefits of her members.
The mayor is giving her an out, and this is why his leadership is so uninspiring.
It’s not alarmist to recognize that we are in for some very ugly and painful times.
But we can get through it. I truly believe that although we are in for maybe years of difficulties, we can and will emerge stronger. But we will need to maintain and develop our infrastructure as much as possible to ensure we can facilitate the kind of innovation and growth that will pull us through this.
How do we get there? We can each sacrifice a little. The employees can give a little something. The taxpayers can give a little something. And before the eye of the storm passes over us, we can come up with a formula that fortifies the city and ensure it has the best streets possible, the best services available, the cleanest parks possible and the infrastructure that will attract the most businesses and innovators in the world.
The mayor has a historic opportunity to do this — to get us ready. But he’s not doing that. He’s uttering unhelpful platitudes and propagating puffery.
But it’s not too late. He can, for once, just accept the reality of the crisis we’re entering and help us forge a path through it.
And if he communicates what’s at stake, and if he shows sincerity to the workers and displays progress to the taxpayers, he’ll be a leader we remember for decades.