After the speech, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ staffers joked about unfurling a Mission Accomplished banner or inviting the Navy. Their boss had just announced he had delivered on the most significant promise he made when taking office more than six years ago.
The city’s decade-long budget crisis, Sanders said, has ended.
“It’s over as of today,” Sanders said at a Thursday press conference outside his office. “I’m declaring. I’ll decree.”
For each of the past 10 years, the city of San Diego has faced an unfortunate reality: The amount of money it planned to collect in taxes didn’t match the amount it needed to spend. For each of the past 10 years, the city has dug into the equivalent of its couch cushions to find piles of money to paper over the deficit and has been forced to curtail services to the public.
In next year’s budget, the last in his tenure, Sanders declared San Diego won’t need gimmicks any longer. And to double down on that promise, he announced Thursday he was restoring some of the worst cuts the city has had to make. Branch libraries and recreation centers will be open longer. More cops will be on the street.
“I don’t know that I thought I was going to see this day,” the mayor said. “It’s one of those where you’re almost reluctant to say anything now because we’ve been under the cloud for so long.”
Sanders was elected at a time of fiscal calamity, when a pension scandal and other shady dealings brought numerous criminal and civil investigations. Those clouds have long since dissipated. A crippling, years-long recession during the meat of the mayor’s second term added financial pressure. A tax increase the mayor backed failed. Sanders reached zero despite these hurdles.
But the meaning of Sanders’ victory, though, isn’t as clear. The mayor’s promises to transform how the city did business haven’t been realized. His budget solutions have relied more on attrition than reorganization. Reforms to pensions and other retirement benefits have focused on new employees and long-term debts, not the massive, budget-strangling bills owed to retirees and current workers. The annual pension payment remains on a course to approach $350 million, a sum unthinkable when Sanders first was elected.
So perhaps it was fitting that what sparked Sanders’ announcement Thursday wasn’t anything of his own doing. Sales tax and hotel-room tax receipts are coming in better than the city expected. New revenues saved the day.
Remember Sanders’ announcement is, by definition, a paper victory. That’s what budgets are. And the 2,013 pages that comprise San Diego’s budget don’t make the costs of Thursday’s victory clear.
Even with the restoration of library hours, some branches will have their doors open a third less than they did a decade ago.
Streets and other crumbling infrastructure face a bleaker situation. The city needs more than $100 million each year to keep its roads, storm drains and buildings from further degrading. Sanders wants to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars, pushing debts onto future generations. But that still won’t be enough money to prevent further decay.
Sanders said at the press conference that the budget was balanced despite the infrastructure deficit because he’s included loan payments in his financial projections.
“We can declare victory because we have a bonding program that we’ve set out,” he said.
Vlad Kogan, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, argued Sanders’ successes comes with the same caveats as his predecessors. Former mayors Susan Golding and Dick Murphy balanced the budget by shorting the pension fund. Sanders has shorted street repairs, instead.
“The mayor’s solution is no different and no better than politics as usual in the city,” Kogan said.
The costs of victory for services besides streets and libraries are less clear.
Sanders used to provide more than 600 ways to evaluate the city’s progress over time, from tree trimming to pothole patching. But once the harshest of the cuts came, he stopped tracking many services. Residents have no consistent way to understand how a decade of deficits have reduced what their city provides them, a recent report from the independent budget analyst said.
Still, there’s no doubt that those who likely will be around longer than Sanders will use Thursday’s news to change the financial conversation in San Diego. At the press conference, City Council President Tony Young and Councilman Todd Gloria, two generally reliable Sanders allies, talked the mayor’s language of victory. Even if they sometimes spoke bureaucratic-ese.
“It is clear that we’ll no longer have the structural budget deficit problem but instead we’ll have a priority spending challenge,” Young said.
“Our work is not over, but this difficult period in our city’s history is,” Gloria said.
Young, who will serve through 2014, and Gloria, who faces no strong opposition in his re-election bid this year, both talked about spending more money on libraries and recreation centers. With so many needs, the city’s financial problems aren’t going away.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5663.
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