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Monday, Nov. 9, 2009 | This time last year, bickering between San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and the City Council had reached its bitter peak. Sanders had proposed axing libraries, recreation centers, employees and fire and police academies to plug a $43 million mid-year budget hole. The council chafed at the mayor’s style and balked at his proposals, leading Sanders to say council members were incapable of making tough decisions.

Fast forward a year. Tougher decisions face San Diego. A $179 million gap hangs over city leaders’ heads. Yet if there’s been animosity to date between the mayor and the council in the budgeting process, it’s been in the backrooms, not council chambers.

More than a week ago, a possible flash point between the mayor and the council came and went with nary a spark.

The mayor asked the council — along with every city department — to propose a way to cut more than a quarter of its budget. The proposals would allow the Mayor’s Office to develop its own proposal to address the deficit.

The mayor reinforced his request by telling each council office the exact dollar amount it needed to slash to save a total $1.3 million.

In response, the council shrugged off the mayor. And the mayor shrugged back.

“It’s their discretion,” Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone said.

A week after the Mayor’s Office deadline, City Council offices have identified a combined $148,486 in savings, far less than what the mayor asked for. No office has specified exactly what it would cut.

But after asking the council for responses — and not getting them — Goldstone said he hadn’t expected responses from the City Council or other departments that don’t answer to the mayor, such as the City Attorney’s Office and Ethics Commission. Unlike last year’s cycle, he said, the Mayor’s Office doesn’t plan to ask the council to make any cuts. But Goldstone said the council may decide to reduce its budget anyway.

“Once they see the magnitude of the reductions (proposed by the Mayor’s Office) they may see as a trade off to be able to preserve a particular service that maybe they go lower, but we’re not going to initiate that,” Goldstone said.

Harmony between the mayor and council might be easier to cultivate at the moment since no employees or programs yet appear on the chopping block. For now, there’s not even a block to chop.

But Michelle Ganon, spokeswoman for Council President Ben Hueso, said there’s an effort not to repeat last year’s disagreements in this budget process.

“We are looking forward to going through this process as a united council and a respectful mayor,” Ganon said. “This time around, everybody’s being more cautious.”

That cautiousness extends to the council’s own proposals.

Just two council members responded to the mayor’s request. Hueso and Councilwoman Marti Emerald both said they would reduce their budgets by 3 percent. Additionally, Hueso said he identified $25,000 in cuts to the $1.7 million council administration budget.

Though Councilmen Carl DeMaio and Todd Gloria did not propose anything to the mayor, their offices said they would reduce their budgets by 3 percent.

Those four proposals put their budgets in line with Council members Sherri Lightner, Kevin Faulconer and Tony Young, who reduced their budgets last year.

Further, Lightner’s office said she would make a proposal after revising her office’s current budget following recent staffing changes. Faulconer and Young’s offices said they were open to working with the mayor on further reductions. A spokesman for Councilwoman Donna Frye said she hadn’t made any decisions on her budget yet.

When council members spend less than their budgets, as they’re doing now, the extra money can go toward community projects at a council member’s discretion.

Last year, Sanders derided these accounts as slush funds. This year, the Mayor’s Office isn’t calling for them to be eliminated.

“That is correct,” Goldstone said. “Again, they may offer that up.”

Unlike the council, Goldstone said, departments under mayoral control were required to submit proposals to cut 27.3 percent of their discretionary budgets. Each did, but not all hit the target — including Goldstone’s department.

The three-person Office of the Mayor and COO — Sanders, Goldstone and Goldstone’s secretary — has a $642,234 annual budget. Goldstone has suggested cuts, but won’t say how much.

“I’m not going to get into that right at the moment,” he said. All the departmental memos, he added, are drafts exempt from the state’s public record laws.

This week, Goldstone and other top city officials are meeting with departments to discuss those proposals so the mayor could make recommendations to the council.

The Mayor’s Office is targeting the Nov. 24 council meeting to release its budget reduction proposals.

Ganon, Hueso’s spokeswoman, conceded that tensions could rise when specific budget cuts are proposed. But that doesn’t mean the relationship between the mayor and council has to strain, she said. Just become decisions will be unpopular, she said, doesn’t mean everyone has to fight about it.

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