Let me ask you something:

Imagine the CEO of a major corporation warning that his organization was going to face an eye-popping deficit and that balancing its budget would be very painful.

And then, weeks later, he urgently seeks approval of complex accounting changes to cover half of it, admitting that within months, another massive shortfall would arise again.

Would you feel comfortable about the future viability of such an organization? How about this: Would you invest in it?

Isn’t this basically what the mayor of San Diego is doing? The City Council is poised today to give him that approval.

The City Council will, of course, approve his plan. If you can call it that. The plan is one part hope, two parts “we’ll figure it out later.” I don’t have much patience for people who tell me to just hope. But I do sometimes give the benefit of the doubt to people who confidently say “we’re on it, we just need a few more months to get there.”

This is how the City Council’s independent budget analyst defends her surprising decision to support this house of cards. After all, she was the one who, for almost two years now, has vividly described the very basic fact that the city is set up to bring in far less money than it is set up to spend and it has done very little to change that.

She apologizes for this lack of leadership by saying it’s time to trust City Hall leaders (emphasis mine — her review of the situation is the best and most easily digestible way to understand what’s happening right now, by the way):

We also realize that the City exists for the sole purpose of providing services to our citizens and we are therefore obligated to do so. If the Mayor’s plan is implemented, the City of San Diego will have the fewest number of General Fund employees per 1,000 population in the last 41 years (as shown in the chart below); yet the City will continue to provide core services to its residents. One-time resources in this economic climate are allowing the City to provide critical services until further structural reforms can be implemented.

In other words, we’re in survival mode, if we survive, the economy might start rallying again and we’ll have time to make the structural reforms we need to achieve balance. We’re just supposed to trust that they’re on it.

The problem with this is that they’ve been telling us this going on several years now.

The mayor may want to re-evaluate his current strategy how he deals with people who are profoundly worried about the city’s ability to stay solvent. They are growing in number. They include the Taxpayers Association, a cadre of business leaders (supporters of him!) he asked to help him evaluate the situation and neighborhood leaders in places like Tierrasanta, who see the writing on the wall: You care about a city service, you better figure out a way to pay for it yourself.

Many of us would be inspired to trust him and encourage the City Council to keep the ship afloat in anticipation of major structural reforms to come. But the mayor has laid out neither major cost savings initiatives nor revenue enhancements he plans to pursue.

He has said, in so many words, all we can do is hope and trust him.

Again, if a major corporations CEO told this to shareholders as he encouraged them to approve complex accounting changes to keep his ship afloat, would we so easily sign off?

Is it really so weird to ask for something more inspiring?

— SCOTT LEWIS

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