With the city of San Diego’s budget crisis at its height last fall, City Council President Ben Hueso decided to pay his share.

He promised to reduce his office’s costs by $32,000.

Turns out his promise was only good once.

Hueso and his colleagues Todd Gloria and Marti Emerald all made the pledge last year to cut their budgets. But, with the new budget for next year now awaiting approval it turns out those cuts weren’t permanent.

Their position puts them at odds with other colleagues. Council members Sherri Lightner, Kevin Faulconer and Tony Young have budgets that are permanently about 3 percent lower than the rest of the council. This week, Councilman Carl DeMaio reaffirmed a pledge to cut his budget by 3 percent next year.

Councilwoman Donna Frye never said she would cut her budget.

Reductions to council budgets don’t amount to much in the context of the city’s overall financial picture. As it stands, the budgets of City Council’s eight offices each range from $939,500 to $971,500. All together council budgets are less than 1 percent of the city’s proposed $1.1 billion day-to-day operating budget for next year.

But there is more than a symbolic quality to council budget cuts. The council members who cut their budgets permanently are just getting less money from the city. The others can squirrel away any savings for their own use — not for the city’s general finances.

Those savings accounts, used to fund community projects like new street light poles, have their critics. In a previous round of budget cuts, Mayor Jerry Sanders derided them as slush funds.

But Hueso, Gloria and Emerald adamantly defended their accounts, saying they should have the ultimate authority to decide what to do with that money.

“I want to reserve the discretion because I want to make sure to take care of services in my district,” Hueso said.

Gloria said the city’s strong-mayor form of government makes him want to maintain his budget at its current level. Money allocated to him stays under his control, but everything else is under the mayor’s.

“I’m a co-equal branch of government,” Gloria said.

But their positions put council districts on an unequal playing field. Lightner, Faulconer, Young and now DeMaio will have less money available to them each year. Emerald said all district budgets didn’t have to be the same.

“In terms of uniformity,” she said, “every district has different needs.”

Lightner, Faulconer and Young were reluctant to criticize other council members for their larger budgets.

“I know the numbers,” Young said. “I know where they are, but I definitely don’t begrudge any of my colleagues.”

Faulconer said he believed council budgets should be equal. Lightner said she was meeting with her staff later this week and could recommend a budget increase.

“It’s conceivable,” she said.

Next year’s budget, discussed for the first time Wednesday, makes clear what Hueso, Gloria and Emerald meant when they said they would reduce their budgets in the fall. They didn’t cut their budget, which would have yielded on-going savings. They just gave money from their savings account back to the city, which yielded one-time savings.

During mid-year budget talks last November, voiceofsandiego.org calculated that City Council members pledged $148,486 to close the city’s record deficit. But only $25,000 of that amount appeared in the budget council passed in December.

This year all council budgets will increase because the city is spreading its higher annual pension payment across all city departments.

But the proposed budget doesn’t reflect that now. Council districts, unlike every other department, didn’t receive a credit for the pension increase. That was a mistake, city Chief Financial Officer Mary Lewis said, and she will make a correction next month. Each office’s budget will increase by about $100,000, Lewis said, and that’s money the city will have to cut from elsewhere.

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

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