No better image captures the change in Jerry Sanders’ priorities than the series of images projected on an immense screen before the San Diego mayor delivered his seventh and final State of the City Address on Wednesday night.
Two school children ran through rough stretches of downtown San Diego, passing by locations the mayor hopes will become a new Chargers stadium, a new central library, an expanded Convention Center and a revamped plaza in Balboa Park. It’s more than $1.5 billion worth of big projects. The screen showed plans for all of them between shots of the running children. The soundtrack thumped music from rapper Eminem and rockers AC/DC.
The movie, more Hollywood than Hillcrest, ended with the mayor emerging from Balboa Theatre’s backstage to a rousing standing ovation.
“You just saw a film that makes clear what a dynamic city we live in, and what incredible opportunities we have before us, opportunities that will help shape our future,” Sanders said at the beginning of his 35-minute speech. “Our job this year is to seize them — now — and redeem the promise of a great city.”
Sanders’ message was clear: I will finish the job. But the job he promised to finish Wednesday night wasn’t the same job he started with.
San Diegans elected Sanders to fix the city’s finances, and by extension, protect the police, fire, library, park and streets services threatened by towering pension bills and a dysfunctional bureaucracy. Today, Sanders can point to major progress on the budget. But even if all that the mayor promised Wednesday night happens, San Diego’s core services likely will be more hollow than when he took office.
Sanders’ annual speeches didn’t always look and sound like this. Six years ago, he delivered a simple message. Unlike leaders of the past, Sanders wouldn’t “delay, deny or deceive” the public about the city’s problems. He would fight them head on and leave the city with balanced books, a sustainable pension system and a government San Diegans could trust. Nothing more, nothing less.
As the years passed, Sanders’ plans broadened. The city could do more. He added big buildings to his agenda. Sanders’ tenor shifted from the darkness of the past to the brightness of the future. In last year’s speech, the mayor deemed his top priority, “lasting prosperity.”
But the financial problems that have nagged at Sanders are the same ones that faced him at the start of his tenure. The books remain unbalanced, weighed down by the slow pace of reform and the cratering national economy. And when voters rejected a Sanders-backed tax hike in fall 2010, the mayor was forced to concede his pension changes weren’t enough to restore San Diegans’ trust in City Hall.
On Wednesday night, the mayor doubled down on his promises to solve these problems. He said he’d present a structurally balanced budget to the City Council in April. With deficits shrinking in recent years and further growth in revenues and investments, the promise looks achievable. It will be no small feat in a city with annual budget gaps stretching back more than a decade.
“This success is a gift for our children and our children’s children,” Sanders said. “They will benefit the most from the billions in savings that flow from our reforms.”
The city’s pension problems, Sanders pledged, will be put “to bed once and for all” by the time he leaves office. He didn’t mention his solution during his speech, but he’s backing a June ballot measure that would replace pensions with 401(k)-style retirements for most new city employees.
Even if he keeps those promises, Sanders almost certainly will pass to his successor a city that’s cut its services, particularly in libraries and parks and recreation. A city that has yet to find a way to keep its streets and other infrastructure from getting worse each year. A city that still will face a pension bill projected to rise as high as $400 million a year.
Any admission of these kinds of realities didn’t have a place in Sanders’ speech. He said “success” 27 times, more than any other word in his address.
Instead, Sanders said plenty about big building efforts. Little was new. As expected, he announced the $185 million new central library had secured all the private donations needed to continue construction and finish on schedule in summer 2013. (The mayor told the U-T San Diego that fundraisers fell about $15 million short of the library’s $33 million funding gap, but an anonymous donor guaranteed the remainder.)
He pushed hard on extolling the benefits of a $520 million expansion of the Convention Center and a $40 million pedestrian-friendly renovation of Balboa Park’s main square. These projects, he argued, would benefit the city’s day-to-day budget or not cost taxpayers a dime.
The biggest big building news came when Sanders discussed plans for an $800 million Chargers stadium and entertainment district. Sanders emphasized more than he ever had the role of San Diego County in paying for the project. A county contribution is probably essential, given Sanders’ aversion to a tax increase and the state-mandated death of the downtown redevelopment program.
“If we do this the right way, the Chargers, our city and our region will all be winners,” he said.
Sanders ended his speech as it began, with a pledge to work until his last hour in office. Afterward, he admitted the grand entrance wasn’t his typical style. But he said it fit. He chose the AC/DC song “Hells Bells” because that’s what played when famed Padres relief pitcher Trevor Hoffman walked out to close games.
“Trevor Hoffman’s closed fearlessly his entire career,” Sanders said. “I think that’s what we need to do over the next year: Close these projects.”
Three out of the four major candidates to succeed the mayor attended the address. Their reactions were predictable. Moderate Republicans Bonnie Dumanis and Nathan Fletcher praised Sanders. Populist Republican Carl DeMaio criticized him. Democrat Bob Filner wasn’t there.
Sanders won’t be around long enough to see everything he talked about through to completion. Whoever is elected will make his own set of budget and big project decisions. But Wednesday wasn’t about what comes afterward.
Through an embrace of the better and an ignorance of the worse, Sanders kept the focus on him.
Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?
Please contact him directly at email@example.com or 619.550.5663.
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