Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009 | As Mayor Jerry Sanders unveiled a plan Tuesday to address San Diego’s $179 million deficit, he put himself at odds with his own financial task force, which has suggested addressing the city’s structural budget woes now, not delaying inevitable cuts.

Sanders outlined cuts that will reduce police and fire staffing, trim library hours and eliminate 530 city jobs. But Sanders draws the majority of proposed savings ($96.5 million) from one-time cuts, the kind that will only yield a savings now — not in perpetuity. His proposal postpones tens of millions of commitments the city will still have to find a way to pay for in the future.

The city will change its schedule for making payments on a large legal settlement, for example. That’ll save $25.2 million now, but not reduce the total amount owed in coming years.

The city will delay finishing a City Hall sprinkler system, saving $5.5 million in the short-term. But the plan is still on the books and, because of inflation, is already $500,000 more expensive than was expected.

Sanders’ task force, composed of 12 local business leaders who’ve met for months about the city’s budget mess, has urged against that. The group has said the city should make tough decisions now, not in the future. In a copy of the group’s draft findings obtained by voiceofsandiego.org, the group said Sanders and the City Council should stop using one-time budget fixes like delaying payments into the city’s reserves.

Sanders distanced himself from that group not only with his budget choices (he’s delaying a $27.5 million payment into the city’s reserves), but his words, too. Though Sanders’ office has said the mayor created the group and that it answered to him, he described it Tuesday as being independent in his first public comments since the draft’s public airing.

“That’s a group of individuals who came to me and asked to help out on this,” he said at a press conference announcing cuts. “This is not something I convened.”

Sanders’ strategy, which heads to the City Council for approval Dec. 14, will get the city through the next 18 months. But in 2011, Sanders said the city will have to find a way to cut another $70 million. He said that figure could be lower if the economy recovers.

The task force’s draft report said the city shouldn’t use that approach. “Hope can never be a strategy,” it said.

Sanders and Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone described the city’s budget choices boiling down to two options: Making those one-time cuts or “decimating” city services by closing fire houses, libraries, recreation centers and a police station.

“Rather than decimate things before we need to, I felt it was responsible to keep those services as best we could,” Sanders said.

The task force’s draft said the city should begin preparing for bankruptcy and file if it doesn’t enact numerous reforms. Sanders unequivocally ruled that out.

“That got out, people said that that was a strategy, we got calls from Sacramento asking how we could possibly go into bankruptcy,” Sanders said. “We are not considering bankruptcy.”

He didn’t offer specifics when asked whether the city has a long-term strategy for addressing its budget problems. Sanders said he thought it was better to hold off on serious cuts until 2011, when an economic recovery should be underway. The recession has reduced the amount of tax revenue the city collects.

“We don’t know what pension payments will be in the future,” Sanders said. “We don’t know what the [hotel tax] and sales tax will look like 18 months from now. We don’t have a crystal ball.”

But the city does have financial forecasts, showing its pension payments continuing to increase in each of the next five years. And the long-term structural budget deficit Sanders inherited and has failed to fix has left the city dealing with deficits and cuts on an almost annual basis.

Sanders’ plan does not rely solely on one-time cuts. It calls for $82.6 million in permanent cuts, which the city will get from eliminating 330 vacant positions and 200 filled jobs. Those 200 employees won’t necessarily be laid off. They can transfer to other jobs. Goldstone said he hoped all would find jobs within the city. Some may not, he said, because the number of vacant city jobs is declining.

If approved, Sanders’ proposed cuts would go into effect Jan. 1. Some would be immediately noticeable. Libraries would cut back hours; most would be closed on Sundays. City lifeguards would no longer patrol Black’s Beach except in summer. The San Diego Police Department would cut 12 dogs as well as its mounted patrol unit, stationed in Balboa Park. The horses would not be sold to rendering plants, a mayoral spokeswoman said, and the dogs would likely go to their officers’ homes.

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/robwdavis. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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