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San Diego’s library system has eroded over the past six years. Mayor Jerry Sanders freely admits it.

“We’ve taken them down to a very small percentage of what they used to be,” Sanders said at a recent budget forum.

Libraries used to be a greater budget priority. While nearly every city department has seen cuts during a decade of San Diego budget deficits, reductions to libraries have been deeper. Its budget has decreased from $38.7 million in Sanders’ first budget in 2007 to $30.1 million under the mayor’s proposal for next year. Its percentage of the city’s day-to-day operating budget will have g0ne down by more than 1 percent, too.

As libraries have lost, others have gained.

In 2007, the City Attorney’s Office received $36.2 million, or $2.5 million less than libraries. Its proposed 2012 allocation will be $42.4 million, or $12 million more than libraries. The percentage the attorney’s office receives of the city budget has gone up by 0.3 percent since 2007 as well.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith argues his department’s budget has increased because of costs outside his control, such as paying for a share of the city’s growing retirement obligations. Beyond the vagaries of the city budgeting, Sanders, City Council members and even a key library supporter defended the city attorney for keeping the city out of trouble and from racking up outside legal costs.

The downside of cutting libraries is clear. They’ll be closed. For attorneys, the effects are less obvious. A smaller legal department could mean lost lawsuits, missed opportunities or bigger bills for outside contracts. But as the mayor and council stress the need to protect public safety and other front line city services in a time of continued budget pressure, they’ll have to come to terms with the realization that the city’s team of lawyers costs increasingly more than its team of librarians.

The City Attorney’s Office files or defends lawsuits involving the city, provides legal advice to the mayor, council and all departments, and prosecutes about 35,000 misdemeanor cases a year. Good lawyers cost money, Goldsmith said in an interview. The fact that they have cost more in the past six years, he said, has little to do with him.

Nearly the entire $4 million hike in his budget this year came from costs associated with rising pension and other retirement obligations, an increase he couldn’t do anything about. Further, Goldsmith contended his office took that hit more than others because its costs are almost all personnel.

Goldsmith’s office has spent less than its budget the last two years. He’s left some positions empty and replaced higher paid jobs with lower level ones. Goldsmith also said he decreased costs for outside attorneys, but those savings primarily appear in other department’s budgets.

“Each year we’ve come in with a plan on how we’re going to do our fair share,” Goldsmith said.

But for some, it’s not fair enough. At a recent community budget forum, Sanders answered a written question about a chart that showed the city attorney’s budget larger than the library’s.

“Please explain how this is shared pain,” the question asked.

Sanders responded that attorneys are expensive, and it costs more to hire outside counsel than do legal work in-house.

Councilmen Kevin Faulconer and Todd Gloria also backed spending in the attorney’s office. Faulconer, who’s been the most outspoken opponent of library cuts, called the City Attorney’s Office an “essential service,” grouping it with police, fire and libraries.

Gloria, chairman of the council’s budget committee, said he’s concerned about cutting the attorney’s office and other administrative departments because previous failures led to billion-dollar liabilities from which the city’s still trying to recover.

Even San Diego Public Library Foundation chairman Mel Katz, who is campaigning against the proposed library cuts, praised Goldsmith’s thrift. Katz said he didn’t believe in pitting departments against each other, and believed the council would find the $7 million to beat back the library reductions.

Still, to a great extent a city budget does nothing more than pit departments against each other for limited dollars. Increases to retirement costs this year affected all city departments, though the boosts to Goldsmith’s budget were larger than to other departments. Other departments have seen budget increases, despite substantial cuts. We’ve called the phenomenon, “The Growing, Reduced Budget.”

Sanders’ 2012 budget proposal has invited a deeper discussion of the city’s spending priorities.

The mayor is planning to restore unpopular cuts to the Fire Department even though a citywide budget deficit still exists. The Fire Department’s boost came at the expense of libraries and parks and recreation departments. Sanders essentially would halve already reduced branch library and recreation center hours. The message is clear: Public safety is more important than libraries and rec centers.

Three years ago, the council rejected Sanders’ proposal for similar deep cuts to libraries and rec centers. Instead, the city filled the gap largely with short-term fixes. Using these sources cushions service cuts, but prolongs the city’s deficits. Sanders has vowed to close the ongoing budget gap by next year, which likely will mean more permanent reductions somewhere in the budget.

Faulconer, Gloria and Katz didn’t say what cuts they would prefer to library hours. Faulconer referred to cost savings from the city’s ambulance service contracts identified in a recent audit and potentially installing solar panels on streetlights. But it’s unclear how either plan would save money right away. The council will continue its budget deliberations this week.

The comparison between the library and city attorney departments, Gloria said, “makes the case of library supporters” that they have seen more than their fair share of budget reductions over the years.

Gloria expected there would be calls to reduce more administrative departments, such as the city attorney or the treasurer, to spare libraries.

“It may come to that,” Gloria said.

For his part, Goldsmith declined to compare his budget to libraries. It’s the mayor and the council’s job, he said, to make spending decisions.

“I can’t talk about the other departments,” he said. “I don’t know what they’re doing. The priorities are up to the policy makers.”

Keegan Kyle contributed to this report.

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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