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Monday, Nov. 16, 2009 | From now until June, four San Diego City Council members will face more than the largest budget deficit in the city’s history. They’ll also face the chance they won’t have jobs soon after they make the likely unpopular decisions needed to close the gap.

The council members have to find solutions more drastic than any in their previous years in office to fix the budget, now estimated to be between $190 million and $200 million out of balance. The cuts will come a year after the city patched an $83 million shortfall.

The political fallout last year could have been worse had the city not saved libraries following a public outcry. This time not only will libraries be targeted, but so will the city’s police and fire departments.

The council’s deadline for approving a slimmed down budget is June 15, one week after primary elections. Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and Tony Young are running for reelection, Council President Ben Hueso is running for state Assembly and Councilwoman Donna Frye still is considering a bid for county supervisor.

Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office is pushing for budget cuts by January to help bridge the $200 million gap. The logic goes that the more the city cuts now, the more it saves and the less it has to cut overall.

Politically, though, it isn’t that simple. The longer the council delays its decision, the longer it could keep potential opponents from running. Waiting until after the March 12 filing deadline to cut parks and recreation, for example, could keep a “save-our-parks” candidate from jumping into the race. On the other hand, waiting until June to make cuts means they’d be fresh in voters’ minds when they go to the polls.

“There’s no good situation for them to be in,” said Jennifer Tierney, a campaign consultant advising both Faulconer and Young in their reelection bids. “You’re choosing the lesser of two evils.”

Tierney added that both of her candidates are weighing the potential fallout from cuts, but emphasized their decisions won’t be made because of politics. She expected both to endorse mid-year budget reductions.

“They’re not choosing their timing based on their campaigns,” she said. “They’re just considering the political ramifications of what their decisions will be.”

All four council members said politics would not play a role in making their choices about solving the budget deficit.

Some turned the question around. Voters, they said, expect them to make these kinds of decisions.

“If they want to vote me out of office because I closed a library, for example, in the face of one of the worst fiscal crises that the city has ever faced, that’s their prerogative,” Hueso said. “But I have to make the choices that I need to — to do what’s best for the city.”

Faulconer said he’s spent much of his time in office examining fiscal issues and knows they require action.

“The voters don’t want anyone, the mayor or the council, to pass the buck anymore,” Faulconer said. “I think that’s true particularly in an election year.”

Politics could be less of a hindrance for Faulconer, Hueso and Young because well-known candidates have yet to file to run against them. Frye, who could face four-term incumbent Ron Roberts in the county elections, isn’t as lucky.

Tom Shepard, a Republican political consultant who advises Sanders and Roberts, said he doesn’t expect anyone other than Frye to have a hard test in June.

“I don’t think any of these candidates will face substantial opposition,” Shepard said. “But I’ve worked with enough candidates in the past that I know that’s of little comfort to them.”

Frye said she remained undecided about her county bid, but said the politics of budget decisions have never been an issue for her. She cited her refusal to take tax increases off the table in her bid for mayor five years ago as evidence.

If he were advising any of the four council members, Shepard said he would tell them they have only one choice to make: Cut now.

“There are some decisions that you just have to close your eyes to the short-term political consequences and do what’s right,” he said. “And this is one of them.”

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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