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San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders gave up his apparent effort to discuss new taxes for the first time in his nearly five-year tenure without a fight late Monday.
As a matter of fact, he never even discussed it.
In a written statement released Monday evening, Sanders said “it was not the proper time” to consider raising taxes, reversing a position he had never publicly taken. The mayor didn’t even fully acknowledge the plan’s existence, referring to it as “a purported sales tax increase.”
Nearly two weeks ago, word first leaked that Sanders was shopping a half-cent sales tax boost to council members as part of a reform package that included selling the city’s landfill and further cutting retiree benefits. Estimates said a half-cent sales tax increase would mean $103 million more annually to the city’s bottom line, enough to cover the city’s expected deficit next year.
The move was the mayor’s first attempt at a comprehensive fiscal effort aimed at solving the financial problems he was elected to fix. Previously, the mayor had offered incremental change as a solution, leaving him with little wiggle room amid the national recession. In his State of the City address in January, Sanders admitted the city had a recurring budget deficit and pledged to find a plan to fix it in 18 months.
In the last two weeks, Sanders never spoke about the tax increase. Instead, his office issued vague statements that all options were on the table to solve the city’s endemic fiscal woes. The first time he used the word “tax” was in Monday’s release.
The silence left a vacuum opponents have ably filled.
Conservative and pro-business groups such as the Republican Party, San Diego County Taxpayers Association and the Lincoln Club — typically Sanders supporters — have unleashed a torrent of criticism, culminating in a Monday afternoon press conference outside a Sears in University Towne Center.
There, opponents railed against the tax increase.
“City politicians and the public labor union bosses to whom they are beholden are like drug addicts,” said Lincoln Club President T.J. Zane. “And our tax dollars are the drug of their choice.”
Fierce opposition to the tax increase came even though it was part of a plan that included two ideas the conservative groups back strongly — privatization and slashing retirement costs.
“At some point, you always have to have all options on the table,” City Councilman Kevin Faulconer said at the press conference. “But you don’t have them on the table until you finish the reform job.”
He gave no indication of what reform would be enough for him to consider discussing new revenues.
While tax antagonists fulminated Monday, those who might have supported an increase, such as City Councilman Todd Gloria and firefighter union president Frank De Clercq, said they were waiting for the mayor to take the lead.
“He’s the strong mayor,” said De Clercq, prior to the mayor’s announcement. “I want to support him in that. Let’s flex some muscle.”
De Clercq said a committee that has spent months examining new revenues is wasting their time if nothing is ever going to be done about it. He referred to surveys that showed city residents would be willing to pay more for certain services. He said he was frustrated that no city politician had made a case for increased taxes.
“I think they need to step up and lead or take all these surveys they’ve done and throw them in the trash,” he said.
Gloria has been the council’s most steadfast supporter of new revenues, but said he wanted to see Sanders propose something before he would have backed it.
The public, Gloria said prior to the mayor’s announcement, needs to know why they should be in favor of a tax increase, something they would repel against without context.
“I think what strikes me about the conversation is that it highlights the exact problem with this issue, which is that few people are willing to talk about it,” Gloria said. “There isn’t a great deal of education about why this is necessary. New revenue in general, let alone a sales tax increase.”
That the mayor never publicly discussed the proposal led to awkward conversations at Monday’s press conference.
Both Faulconer and Republican Party leader Tony Krvaric took pains not to say the mayor had floated the sales tax idea, but instead contended the idea just came from conversations going on at City Hall.
“Clearly it’s an idea somewhere in the bowels of City Hall and we’re going to make sure it never sees the light of day,” Krvaric said.
A sales tax increase would have needed the majority approval of city voters if it would go toward general city revenues. The deadline for City Council to put an increase on the ballot is Aug. 6, leaving little time for the mayor to have made his case regardless.
Last December, the city closed an unprecedented $179 million budget gap with unpopular measures like temporary shutdowns of fire engines, further trimming of library hours and laying off Police Department employees. Last month, City Council reached agreement to close another $30 million deficit. Next year’s deficit stands at $77 million, and any solution to that gap looks like it will come without a dramatic influx of new money.
Gloria said that would mean more cuts.
“For any citizen that is unhappy with the current state of their street, who is unhappy with the number of hours at their library or who are concerned about fire station brownouts, by not moving forward with some sort of new revenue proposal we are not only ensuring that those will continue but they will get worse,” he said.
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