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Friday, April 24, 2009 | In San Diego, tax is a four-letter word — or so the saying goes.
Now Councilman Todd Gloria thinks otherwise. Gloria, a former staffer for U.S. Rep Susan Davis, was elected in November as the District 3 councilman.
Now Gloria said he’s eager to take on a potentially toxic topic: drumming up voter support for a major revenue increase, whether that’s charging for trash collection at single-family homes, increasing stormwater fees or levying higher taxes to pay for repairs to streets, sidewalks and other infrastructure.
Gloria sat down with us recently to talk about those efforts, the big labor vote and his first months at City Hall.
Let me ask first of all about labor negotiations last week. Obviously that was a big decision and I think a surprising one to a lot of people. What made you vote the way you did?
I think what you saw from the council was a belief that we had to make tough decisions in order to preserve resources and try and put the city on a sound financial footing. When you looked at three of our bargaining units being able to come to contracts — really difficult contracts, not ones that under normal circumstances they would choose to support but in recognition of the difficult financial circumstances that we as a city are in generally and in the nation as a whole — they were able to get there. And it didn’t seem as though we were making as much progress with the remaining two and the vote to impose was the option we had to go with.
It was a difficult vote from the standpoint that I personally believe we’ve asked our city employees to sacrifice for many years now, year after year forgoing pay increases. … But at the same time, we know that our revenues are down substantially from sales taxes and property taxes and other sources and we were left with not very many options and I think asking our employees to share half of the burden of our overall deficit for the year seemed like a fair approach.
You’ve mentioned earlier the Chamber of Commerce people who came to the impasse hearing and [talked about] their willingness to consider revenue increases if you approved [the mayor’s labor proposals]. Did that play a factor in your decision?
No. I believe strongly that we have to look at our revenue problem here in the city. Much has been made of what some have called a spending problem here at the city and there may be some truth to that, but it doesn’t neglect the fact that we also have a revenue problem. We tried to address that aggressively [Monday] by looking at our fee structure and getting to full cost-recovery for a lot of the programming we provide to specific interests in our city.
I’ve wanted to address this problem since I got here and we’re starting to work in that direction. And I’m heartened that the president and CEO of the chamber expressed the chamber’s willingness to engage in that part of the conversation because I think to date many of the other interests in our city haven’t been willing to look at that end of the equation.
I think that at a point in time when we have eliminated almost 1,000 positions, where we have almost 1,000 vacancies in the city, we just took $30 million from our city employees with a potential long-term savings in excess of $300 million, I think we’ve made a substantial amount of cuts. … And we still don’t have any great long-term plans for our infrastructure problems and there’s a host of ills in our city that still aren’t addressed. And I think that much of that stems from the fact that no one’s been willing to engage on the revenue conversation.
Do you think it’s possible in San Diego? Obviously this is a city that’s rejected hotel taxes that are paid for by tourists. Do you think it’s possible to get something on the ballot that would succeed?
I think it is with leadership. And what you’ve seen with some recent attempts of the parcel tax for fire prevention last November, there were very few visible leaders that were out there advocating for that effort. And as a consequence it didn’t pass. I think whatever we entertain, it requires leadership from this council, from the mayor and from other leaders in the community to explain why this is appropriate, why the funds would be used wisely and judiciously. And when that case could be made, I think people by and large will vote sensibly and can come to support that.
In terms of the general attitude that San Diegans are tax-averse, I think everybody is very suspicious when it comes to taxes and rightfully so. … That said, you have to match that up with the expectations of the community about the services they’re going to receive. I’ve yet to find a constituent that’s come up to me and said that their library is open too often, their park and rec center is maintained too well, that the police response times exceeded their expectations. There are a lot of demands and needs in the community and not enough resources to address it. I think if we to go the community and explain what current service levels are, how we could best improve them and what it would take to do that, there might be support for that. …
I think San Diego is also changing. I’m a third-generation San Diegan. Growing up, I don’t think I ever would have expected a six-member Democratic majority on our City Council, but we do now. There’s an article in the LA Times [on Tuesday] about California growing internally instead of through migration and the demographic effects of that and one of the suggestions was that attitudes about taxes will be changing as a result of that. It was kind of an interesting hypothesis.
You said you’ve been wanting to do this since you came to the council. Do you think it’s maybe too early, that you haven’t really had a chance to assess the city and find out if there is more fat to cut elsewhere?
I acknowledge I’ve been here four months and I certainly have more to learn. That said I’ve certainly lived here my entire life and been an observer of what’s going on and the story year after year has been what are we going to cut to make this budget work?
What that means for my communities — the neighborhoods I represent — is that my folks are asked to go without. … Whether it’s rolling brownouts for our Fire Department, closure of the University Heights library, shutting down the Adams Avenue rec center … those are unacceptable to me.
And should we root out waste and inefficiencies? We should. But I think we’ve been making efforts in that direction and I just don’t believe you can solve the entirety of the city’s problems by looking at only 50 percent of the equation. That’s why I think someone has to be on the other side of the ledger articulating what places that we’re short.
Look at just [Monday] with our fee enhancements. You had the fee that we assess for folks who want to pay their traffic and parking infractions online. I think the cost to the general fund was something in excess of $100,000 a year … that’s the fee that’s charged to us by the private contractor who does the IT support for that and that the city’s general fund is currently paying for. Now we have a fee that will charge to the people that park without paying at the meter, who have some sort of infraction, those folks are going to start paying for that now.
To ignore all the revenue end of the spectrum would be to say that the general fund should continue to subsidize those particular folks at the expense of our library users, our rec center users, our police officers and our firefighters. I disagree.
During the meetings I noticed — and I could be wrong — but I couldn’t find a decision where you voted in the minority. You were always on the side that prevailed, and I’m wondering why you think that is. Is it something that happens naturally, or do you ever disagree with something and decide to vote with the majority because that’s the side that’s going to win?
(Laughs) Oh, Rani. First off, I think that I try at least on the issues I want to support, articulate, hopefully successfully, why my colleagues should support me, and to date I’ve been very successful in doing that. …
On the contentious issues, I think I try and find common ground. I want to be a consensus builder on the council and hopefully my votes will be reflective of those personality traits and an ability to bring people with me.
My constituents sent me to City Hall to get things done. The way you get things done around here is to put together a majority of support to do that.
(Notably, a few hours after this interview Tuesday, Gloria voted in a 5-3 minority against Housing Commission contracts.)
It seems during some of the meetings that there’s a little tension between you and Carl DeMaio. Am I misreading it or do you like hate his guts?
Give me an example.
I don’t know, the joke about the PowerPoint presentations. (Gloria a few months ago made a jibe about the lengthy presentations DeMaio frequently gives at City Council meetings.)
I try and bring a bit of humor to the job just because I think there is a little stress and tension in general with this line of work. … It’s helpful for all involved, especially if you’re trying to get some consensus, to insert some humor …
I actually respect all of my colleagues. … I think Sherri (Lightner) is phenomenal. To have an engineer here and to watch what she’s been doing on the water reuse studies is pretty amazing. I think Marti (Emerald) brings a warmth to this job that’s really impressive, Donna (Frye) asks phenomenal questions and Carl, while we’re philosophically far apart, the passion that he brings to his job, I hope I bring an equal level to my point of view. While we philosophically may be in conflict, it’s certainly nothing personal.