San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar couldn’t stay in the City Council committee meeting very long Wednesday morning. He had to meet with Mayor Jerry Sanders.
Soon after Mainar left, Sanders Chief of Staff Kris Michell came to the committee room to get Police Chief Bill Lansdowne. He had to meet with the mayor, too.
The mayor didn’t want to talk to them about the potential sales tax increase on the committee’s agenda. He wanted a briefing on something else.
Bentley Do, a two-year-old boy staying with relatives in Mira Mesa choked to death on a gumball Tuesday night. Nine-and-a-half minutes passed before the Fire Department arrived to help Do, almost double the department’s goal.
The slow response turned the tragedy political. One fire crew that could have responded to Do was shuttered, a victim of the city’s budget cuts.
An hour after meeting with the mayor, Mainar and Lansdowne went to a downtown fire station one block from City Hall to explain the circumstances of Do’s death to the media. At the same time, the council committee debated the increase to the city’s sales tax, sold as a way to protect the city’s fire and police departments from further cuts and restore some of their funding.
The dots got connected during the meeting.
“I think people have a right to decide if we’re going to have police and fire available when you call, or whether we’re going to continue to have three-year-olds die because the wait time is nine minutes,” said Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council.
Just like that, a toddler became a face in the city’s financial crisis.
The effort to fix the city’s problems has picked up speed in the last month as city leaders race against an Aug. 6 deadline to place issues before voters in November.
One such issue, a half-cent sales tax increase, looked unthinkable a week ago when Sanders pulled his support for the idea. But by the end of Wednesday’s committee meeting, the sales tax measure, along with numerous other revenue-generating plans, was headed to the full council for a vote to put them on November’s ballot.
None of the four committee members who voted in favor of moving the issue to the council — Todd Gloria, Tony Young, Donna Frye and Ben Hueso — endorsed a tax increase. Instead, they spoke of giving the public the opportunity to choose between more cuts or giving the city more money.
“I would have greater comfort in making additional reductions if I knew that was the will of the voters,” Gloria said.
A half-cent sales tax increase to 9.25 percent could raise $103 million. It requires six council members to place it on the ballot and the majority of city voters to approve.
The city is facing a deficit now estimated at $73 million for next year, though repairs to the current City Hall or the construction of a new one will make that number higher. Also, Sanders has a self-imposed June 2011 deadline to develop a plan to end the city’s persistent budget gaps.
But Wednesday’s circumstances turned the focus back to cuts the city already has made.
As part of a $179 million budget deficit the city closed in December, the council agreed to temporarily shutter, or “brownout,” up to eight city fire engines saving $11.5 million a year in overtime costs.
The brownouts have been one of the most controversial budget reductions the city has made since 2003, the first of the 10 straight deficits it has faced. Fire union head Frank De Clercq began speaking out against the fire crew closures after the March fire-related death of a Golden Hill man in an area served by a shuttered engine.
Fire Department officials did not blame the brownouts for that death. Tuesday night’s choking incident was different.
Mainar said it was unclear if the toddler’s death could have been prevented, but said the brownouts contributed to paramedics arriving slower. (Two San Diego police officers arrived at the scene in four minutes, but they were unable to revive Do. They called the Fire Department, whose staff has more specialized training and tools.)
“Our response times will not change in the city of San Diego with no additional resources,” Mainar said.
But Mainar stopped short of advocating the city end brownouts or increase revenue. He said he didn’t prefer if any more fire funding came from cuts to other departments or new revenues.
“I see it just as revenue,” he said. “Either one is fine by me.”
A series of ideas have appeared in the last month to address the city’s financial troubles. Sanders privately floated a tax increase as part of a reform package that included cost-cutting labor concessions, but pulled his support after Republican and business allies blasted the plan. City Attorney Jan Goldsmith has released a plan to privatize city trash collection, which he contends would save $34 million.
Further, this week the council voted to put building a new $294 million Civic Center on November’s ballot, which supporters argue will save the city money over repairing the current building.
Interest groups will tie the City Hall vote to a tax increase, Frye said. They’ll do the same with the city’s recent decision to build a $185 million new main library. Voters are less likely, she implied, to support a tax increase if they think it’s going toward big buildings.
“Whether we like them or not those are the big elephants in the room right now,” Frye said.