The official numbers on the city of San Diego’s more-than-a-decade-old budget deficit continue to shrink. By the time he leaves office this year, Mayor Jerry Sanders seems poised to declare victory over the budget and the pension crisis that exacerbated its financial problems.

The key question: Is the mayor’s victory real or hollow? Even if the deficit goes away, city services have seen major reductions during Sanders’ tenure and $200 million-plus annual pension payments aren’t ending any time soon.

This dynamic is becoming central in the election of Sanders’ successor. Two Republican candidates for mayor, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, argue Sanders’ victory will be real. Their campaigns go beyond city finances and pensions, emphasizing school reform and economic innovation instead.

Their Republican counterpart, City Councilman Carl DeMaio, contends the mayor’s victory will be hollow. His campaign is city finances and pensions.

This push-and-pull over San Diego’s fiscal health defined Wednesday night’s debate hosted by urban planning and real estate organizations. Dumanis and Fletcher tried to argue past the financial and pension woes that dominated the city’s last 10 years. And DeMaio tried to drag them back to center stage.

“I think we’re about to turn the page,” Dumanis said of the city’s budget problems at the debate’s outset.

“We’ve really spent the better part of the last decade dealing with the problems of the past,” Fletcher said. “The good news is there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not a train. It actually is the end of the tunnel.”

DeMaio’s response was relentless.

“It should concern each and every one of you to hear someone wanting to be San Diego’s next mayor declare the fiscal crisis is over,” DeMaio said. “Because either it’s a stunning admission of ignorance about the true nature of the city’s financial problems or it’s a revelation that they’re not committed to make the reforms that the city needs to make in its budget.”

DeMaio cited the city’s huge backlog of road and infrastructure repairs, the slow pace of competitive bidding for services and big increases in water rates in recent years. His hammering on finances pushed Dumanis and Fletcher to clarify themselves later on in the debate.

“No one’s declaring victory, at least I haven’t heard anyone up here, about the fiscal issues that face the city,” Dumanis said. “We’re always going to have to hold people accountable and insert some management because while getting the pension issues in order, the city hasn’t really had the opportunity to manage itself.”

“You can learn from the problems of the past without living in them,” Fletcher said. “You can understand them. You can ensure we don’t repeat them. That doesn’t mean we have to dwell on them. That doesn’t mean we have to continue to blame people.”

(Democratic mayoral hopeful Bob Filner was ill and didn’t attend the forum.)

So which perspective is right? Is the mayor’s expected victory real or hollow?

Take one issue close to the hearts of each candidate. The three candidates all said time and again they would make updating the city’s community plans a priority. The plans function as blueprints for growth and development in each neighborhood and they’re central in high-profile jobs vs. people fights near the waterfront downtown and in Barrio Logan.

The plans also have suffered under Sanders.

The city has budgeted about $900,000 for plan updates this year, close to a 75 percent reduction in funding from two years ago. Almost three-quarters of the city’s community plans are more than 15 years old.

So let’s assume the mayor keeps his promise and eliminates the city’s long-term budget deficit this spring. His success won’t include the tens of millions of dollars needed to pay for all the new and restored services the mayoral candidates said they wanted: community plans, greater street repairs, more library and recreation center hours, increased assistance for military veterans and, in the case of Dumanis, a new education czar.

Sanders’ successor still will have to find a lot more money to realize their vision for the city.

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 liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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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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