Tuesday, April 7, 2009 | The other day the San Diego City Council discussed an increase to the parking meter fees. Then, a few days later, it talked about increasing fees to get things like permits to operate pedicabs and strip clubs.
Tuesday, the San Diego County Grand Jury announced that the city simply had to start charging residents for trash pickup at single-family homes.
These are the products of a lurching and reactive City Hall — a place with no plan to solve a big problem.
In the middle of this litany, I went to City Hall to sit down with two city councilmen, Tony Young and Kevin Faulconer. These two — a black Democrat from southeast San Diego and a white Point Loma Republican — are pretty different people.
But they’ve tried to come together because they both think that they see the same thing: That there is an ugly crisis enveloping the city and that, in this crisis, there’s an opportunity.
Faulconer, pretty clearly, would like to be mayor of San Diego someday. Young has started to find his voice. They both have been on the City Council about the same amount of time (Young a little longer). Thing is, they have both been around long enough to have figured out how it works, but they have kept their heads and aren’t so caught up in the game to want to hide how bad things have gotten.
And, if they’re doing anything right at all, they’re warning us that things are bad. They are really bad.
Young, in some of the starkest language yet, said the city simply could not meet the commitments it has made to its employees to cover their health care costs long after they retire.
Faulconer said that the new members of the City Council — Carl DeMaio, Sherri Lightner, Marti Emerald — brought with them similar freedom from the game that he and Young and their colleague, Donna Frye, enjoy. The reservoir of desire on the City Council to hide or paper over everything that is wrong at City Hall is at a historic low.
Add to this the fact that all the city’s employee groups are negotiating for a new contract at the same time.
And then sprinkle on an economic crisis and a worldwide slowdown.
The stars are aligned, like Faulconer says, for a dramatic and painful, but necessary, shift toward balance at City Hall.
Without such a shift, the already suspect service level the city provides will be truly disappointing if not dangerous.
These are bold proclamations for a couple of young, ambitious politicians. They’re basically saying that unless they and their colleagues succeed in taking advantage of this opportunity, they will all preside over perhaps the most significant deterioration of city services and infrastructure any resident can remember.
Faulconer and Young wouldn’t talk about the specific concessions they were asking employees to make. The city’s legal representatives had them on a tight leash. The City Council, thanks to the new city attorney, now has power to decide whether it wants to listen to the mayor’s recommendation about how to settle with employee groups or whether it wants to come up with something altogether different.
This is a departure from the past, and a blow to the mayor, who is feeling the first unexpected sting to come as a result of his winning the death match with the former city attorney.
So Young and Faulconer have tried to position themselves as leaders of this budget discussion. And they are in a remarkable position to influence this city in a truly historical way.
The economic crisis, combined with the city’s mounting long-term liabilities, particularly in retiree health and pension costs, have, for a long time, been barreling toward City Hall like a freight train knocked off its rails. The employees seem to recognize this and they have offered some significant concessions. The city’s white collar workers have offered to temporarily suspend their participation in the SPSP program — the separate 401(k)-type retirement program the city runs for them. The blue-collar workers have offered to do to their retiree health care plan exactly what Faulconer and Young say should happen to it to protect the city.
But look at all of these things: You’ve got an increase in the cost of the already ridiculously priced parking meters; you’ve got an increase in the cost of the permits for strip clubs; you’ve got a retiree health care cost-containment plan; you’ve got some employee groups considering furloughs; you’ve got two City Councilmen warning of pain if the employees don’t give. On and on the list goes.
What’s the problem here?
These are all being considered individually. They are all isolated policies. You have one employee group meeting with the city behind closed doors and in the next room you have another employee group meeting with the city behind closed doors. Then you have the city considering one fee, arguing back and forth about it, and then putting it down and arguing about the next one.
None of this is being considered as a whole. Everyone’s working on their own and the merits of each proposal or demand is being considered isolated by itself when it very well could have more merit when considered as part of a larger recovery package.
Young and Faulconer, when we sat down Thursday, plainly, and repeatedly, refused to say what they might do to further solidify the city’s financial footing even if the city’s employees agreed to give them every possible concession of which they could have ever dreamed.
This is the crippled product of isolating these various issues. Think about it for a second. The grand jury just recommended that the city start charging residents for their trash pickup. On its own, this is not an attractive proposition to city taxpayers unwilling to shovel more money into an endless hole with which they have become justifiably frustrated.
But if the trash fee was coupled with a major employee concession on retiree health care or pension costs, well, it becomes much more attractive. And if both were part of a comprehensive recovery plan with major cuts here and permit and fee increases there, well, you can start to picture how unattractive things become less unattractive.
So while it is impressive that Young and Faulconer would so clearly articulate how bad things will be if things don’t change, they are speaking and acting in isolation.
To truly lead us out of this, they’ll have to show us how the whole puzzle is put together.
I really do hope they can.