Going from red to black in the city of San Diego hasn’t been easy. Budget deficits stretch back 10 years, in good economic times and bad.

Fixing the problem doesn’t suffer from want of ideas. As part of wide-ranging budget discussions Monday afternoon, City Council addressed what’s being dubbed a “menu of options” for financial solutions. The menu has many more choices than hamburgers and French fries.

Two-hundred ninety five items are on the list including those that seem relatively straightforward, such as “honor contractual commitments,” and those with the potential to save a few pennies, such as “establish a high school internship program.”

“Don’t know where to start,” Councilman David Alvarez said. “There’s so much here.”

It might help by first defining the problem. Earlier in the afternoon, the council heard two dramatically different takes on the city budget.

Mayor Jerry Sanders’ Office told the council next year’s deficit will be $56.7 million and the city would have a surplus by 2016.

Then Andrea Tevlin, the city’s independent budget analyst, told the council next year’s deficit was $95.8 million, and the city remained nearly $80 million in the red by 2016. Those numbers don’t even include more than $70 million a year Tevlin has identified as needed to repair crumbling city assets in the next five years.

Differences depend on what counts as part of the deficit. Take retiree health care. The city is negotiating a reduction in health care costs with its labor unions. The Mayor’s Office estimate assumes either those negotiations will cut costs to what the city currently is paying, or the city won’t continue to fund the benefit fully. The IBA is counting the full amount owed now.

A better example might be fixing assets, such as streets, buildings and storm drains. Everyone agrees the city doesn’t take care of them.

“I personally believe we do not have enough money funded to achieve a desired level of maintenance,” Tony Heinrichs, the city’s general services director, told the council. “That’s not a secret. The city has had a problem with funding deferred maintenance for years.”

Heinrichs estimated the repair backlog remains between $800 million and $900 million, and he expects to deliver a report on it to a council committee in mid-March.

Sometimes fixing budget problems takes more than money. Someone actually has to be able to do the work. Chief Financial Officer Mary Lewis said the city has spent only about a quarter of the $103 million deferred maintenance bond it issued nearly two years ago.

“There was no pipeline developed for design so we had to start from the beginning,” Lewis said. She added that she expected the city could move much faster now and finish the projects planned from that bond issue by next March.

Still, a long-range plan for fixing this problem — and the others the city faces — will take more than a menu. The hard part actually is making decisions.

“What services would you cut to make room in your budget for additional streets and roads maintenance?” Lewis asked the council. “Parks, libraries, fire, public safety. It would be a tradeoff. There’s a zero-sum game.”

Please contact Liam Dillon directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/dillonliam.

Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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