Four people remained after it was all over in San Diego’s City Council chambers Monday evening. City fire union President Frank De Clercq sat next to City Councilwoman Donna Frye in the chamber’s front row, and two of Frye’s staffers watched them talk.
“At the end of the day,” De Clercq told Frye, “there’s going to be Armageddon in the city.”
De Clercq had just seen Frye torpedo a sales tax ballot measure. Her no vote left it one shy of the ballot. Had more than half of San Diegans backed the half-cent sales tax increase in November, the city could have raised about $100 million annually. That money would have been enough to cover its projected budget deficit next year and restore cuts to the city’s Fire Department.
De Clercq wanted to know what he could do to get Frye’s support to save the tax measure. After all, the city still has nearly two weeks until a deadline to put items on November’s ballot — and Frye had yet to declare the proposition finished.
“I don’t know,” Frye said. “People now want to talk to me.”
She meant Council President Ben Hueso, who wanted to negotiate with her on what reforms she needed to see in order to support the tax increase.
But a meeting later Monday night between the two, Councilman Carl DeMaio and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith didn’t yield any results, Hueso’s spokeswoman said, because Frye wouldn’t budge.
“They did talk,” said Michelle Ganon, Hueso’s spokeswoman. “Now it’s dead.”
For more than a month, plenty of talking, both in public and in private, has centered on proposing a tax increase in a famously tax-averse city.
First, the mayor pitched it in the privacy of backrooms as part of a fiscal reform package that included labor concessions. Then he bailed after two weeks of public opposition from his Republican and business allies. Those pressuring the mayor claimed the city needed “reform before revenue.”
Hueso resurrected the sales tax increase last week, and the talks took new urgency after 2-year-old Bentley Do choked to death on a gumball last Tuesday in Mira Mesa. Fire crews slowed by budget cuts took more than nine minutes to respond. Hueso’s idea: The city needed revenue now while finishing reforms already in the works.
Frye took the conversation full circle, back to where the mayor began, saying she needed to see a specific commitment to cost cutting, such as pension reforms, at the same time as the tax increase.
No one should be surprised, she said, that she was rejecting a revenue increase unless it was directly linked to a comprehensive package of reforms that solved the city’s financial problems. It was her platform, Frye said, from her failed mayoral run in 2005, and something she has repeated over the years.
“Now you get to hear it from me one more time,” she said. “And maybe this time people will get the message.”
The mayor’s message, when given at all, continues to be mixed.
Mayor Jerry Sanders, Hueso and Councilman Todd Gloria over the weekend approached school board President Richard Barrera, fearing the district’s proposed parcel tax was on a collision course with their sales tax on the November ballot.
After a string of meetings this weekend, Barrera decided to ask the school board to cancel the school tax, which could bring $50 million annually into local schools. It is scheduled to vote Tuesday.
While a Sanders spokesman said he didn’t know what was discussed in the meetings, Barrera said the talks centered on whether one tax would harm the other.
“My feeling was it just wasn’t going to be realistic,” Barrera said. “And it’s just more possible that their measure would have a real shot at passing.”
Yet after the sales tax fizzled, Barrera said he still wanted to withdraw the school tax, saying he wasn’t convinced that the campaign could raise enough money to pass it. The school district did get something in return for its pains: Barrera said Sanders, Hueso and Gloria pledged to back a future schools tax and to help the school district lobby against state cuts.
While the discussions swirled around them, Sanders and his deputies continued their pattern of saying little and expressing even less.
City Chief Operating Officer Jay Goldstone, looking a little sheepish, waded into the council’s more than two-hour sales tax discussion Monday afternoon.
He said the mayor had done reform, was still doing reform, but still faced draconian cuts to city services.
Goldstone said closing the city’s yawning $70 million-plus deficit next year could mean further reductions to the city’s police and fire departments, which make up half of the city’s day-to-day operating budget, and cuts to the city’s library and parks departments.
“Most of the other pots of money that we’ve uncovered over the years have been expended,” Goldstone said.
For example, Goldstone told the council, the city could close the gap by shuttering 20 fire stations — about half the stations in the city — and laying off 700 sworn police officers.
Still, when asked for a recommendation on a sales tax ballot measure, Goldstone demurred.
“I don’t know that I have a recommendation,” he said.
During the meeting, Hueso and his allies on the council looked to have built support for the measure despite a continued strong push by Republicans and business groups to defeat it.
DeMaio called the measure “a pension tax” and said that even if the city raised the tax it wouldn’t cover the ballooning pension payments that were due in the coming years.
But Hueso and others countered that cost-cutting reforms at the city were continuing and even if they occurred the city wouldn’t save enough money next year to stave off major service reductions. Voters, they argued, should decide if the city should receive an infusion of new money or accept diminished services.
Hueso’s side appeared to lock down final support for the measure when Democratic Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, who had never before said she would back a tax increase, lined up in favor of letting voters’ decide.
But then Frye said no.
Her position led to the beginnings of public negotiations in which council members began talking about what reforms Frye wanted to see. The talks intrigued DeMaio, who wondered whether the city attorney could prepare a package of pension reforms and the sales tax increase on the fly. For a moment, the staunch budget hawk seemed willing to consider a tax increase.
But Hueso cut off the discussion.
De Clercq, the fire union president, after the meeting asked Frye what it would take to get her aboard. Frye told him to start pitching ideas.
“I’m going to go talk to Ben and see if we can go figure it out,” she told De Clercq. “But you put your thinking cap on. Your big thinking cap.”
Please contact Liam Dillon directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and Emily Alpert at email@example.com. Follow Dillon on Twitter at twitter.com/dillonliam and Alpert at twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.