Last night, I, the Union-Tribune and San Diego CityBeat all took a closer look at the city of San Diego’s financial reform ballot measure.

Taken together, the articles show how debate on the fiscal package is evolving. In short, everyone wants to know what the city will save if it enacts the 10 reform measures required before raising taxes.

My conclusion was that the city’s savings depend on how hard city leaders push for the reforms, not the ballot measure’s mandates alone.

The U-T’s conclusion was that the final version of the reform package ensures less savings than the one originally proposed by Councilwoman Donna Frye. Here’s how the article put it:

[T]he result could be far less taxpayer savings than could have been possible.

The point that some of the language is weaker in the final ballot measure than the original proposal is well founded, though state labor laws likely played a role in its weakening. But the U-T’s story ignored crucial context for how the ballot measure changed from start to finish. What was approved ensures any financial reform occurs before the city increases taxes. Frye’s first proposal — the one the newspaper indicates was stronger — didn’t.

Frye’s original proposal would have raised taxes first without requiring any reforms — potentially taking $200 million from taxpayers without city leaders cutting anything.

The final measure, if approved, would require reform — however strong — before any taxes are increased.

These changes gave the proposal broader support from the high-profile Republicans and business leaders needed to convince a skeptical public and fund a campaign. Mayor Jerry Sanders only signed off on the package when Frye proposed a hybrid ballot measure that had some reforms occurring before increasing the tax and others as targets afterward.

Even that plan wasn’t strong enough for some in the business community, said Bill Geppert, a Cox Communications vice president and Sanders’ confidant.

Business leaders became open to the reform package after Councilman Tony Young pushed to require all the reforms to occur before any tax increase, he said.

To be sure, putting reforms before revenue could have happened with the stronger language the U-T noted was in Frye’s original proposal. As I wrote in my story, actual savings from the financial package will depend on how hard the city leaders want to push for cost cuts.

Attaching dollar amounts to the reform measures and checking some off is essential for many business leaders, too, Geppert said. If business doesn’t like what it sees, he said, it could help a campaign against it.

“It’s really in their hands at this point,” Geppert said of city leaders. “I think that the business community, if they don’t see demonstrable steps toward the election time, then we’ll be all-in on opposing it.”


Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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