The Morning Report
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It has become clear over the past few days that Mayor Jerry Sanders has come up with a new slogan: “Jerry Sanders, helping San Diegans decide what to complain about since 2005.”
Sanders is peppering the airwaves with his anger about state lawmakers’ incompetence at solving their own structural deficit. First it was Fox News, then it was NBC Nightly News and on Wednesday, he joined other local counterparts at the Mira Mesa Public Library to condemn “the state’s illegal raid of local government funds.”
He’s absolutely right, of course, the state is dysfunctional. It is passing on pain to the cities that it shouldn’t. And we should be frustrated with Sacramento.
But how can Sanders, with a straight face, chide other elected leaders for not being able to reconfigure a deep structural financial deficit? Below his 11th floor office at City Hall, the mayor is looking at a bureaucracy that is as close to insolvency as it ever has been. To balance the budget last year, Sanders turned to gimmicks (he “found” $20 million) and avoided any real lasting changes. Yes, he cut some employee compensation, but the state is furloughing people too. Neither the city, nor the state has done anything near what would bring either of them in line to spend what they are set to bring in.
The mayor has steadfastly, for years, avoided every hint of long-term responsible change to the financial condition of the city. Now the city is about to receive the largest, ugliest bill it ever imagined from its retirement system and officials are scrambling to justify the unthinkable: Once again underfunding the pension system. The mayor is only the mayor because his predecessor took that very route.
What’s most galling, though, about the mayor’s lambasting of the state’s budget incompetence is his frustration at the state’s inability to make tough decisions.
What? Really? Months ago, I laid out a simple formula for financial recovery: 1) Set clear goals for eliminating the most controversial of employee benefits, and take other measures to satisfy legitimately frustrated taxpayers; 2) After defining your goals in this area, promise that if they are met, you’ll work to increase certain revenue sources.
The combination of both efforts would go a long way toward balancing the structural deficit the city faces.
But when I asked the Mayor’s Office several months ago why it would not, in any circumstance, let it be known just what it was trying to achieve before it would consider raising revenues, I was met with a very weak answer:
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.”
The mayor has been uninterested in pursuing a long-term solution to the city’s financial imbalance. He just is. He does not think it’s politically feasible either to cut what would need to be cut or to raise the revenue that would be needed. And rather than lead the people to a solution, he’s sitting back and saying that the populace will tell him when it’s ready for a solution.
So he doesn’t budge. And yet he thinks it’s OK to lambaste state leaders for doing exactly the same thing.
Hence the heckling from me.
If he tries to redirect attention from his inability to grapple with the city’s fiscal ills by parading his frustration on national television, I’m going to do my best to remind everyone of his own reluctance to face tough decisions here. You should follow a lot of these reminders on twitter.com/scottlewisVOSD. Twitter’s proving to be a very valuable resource both for consuming and finding your way to interesting news and for talking about it.