It’s a common refrain for victorious politicians who campaigned on promises of roads paved with gold and ponies for all.

Once they get into office, they realize, to their horror of course, that their predecessors had patched together the budget with duct tape and Laffy Taffy. There’s no money to be had.

“We didn’t know how bad it was!” they exclaim. And then they explain there will be no ponies as promised.

Lest any candidate for San Diego mayor try the same thing when they take office in seven months, we felt it important to show “how bad it was” now.

To do that, we’ll examine the financial impacts of two key issues: pensions and roads. Mayor Jerry Sanders didn’t take either into full account when he proclaimed the city budget balanced for next year and projected surpluses through 2017.

The June pension initiative is forecasted to save money in the long term, but it’s going to cost money in the short term.

Plus, the city currently doesn’t spend enough money just to keep its roads and infrastructure from getting worse. It plans to continue that practice through 2017.

Three of the four major candidates for mayor support Prop. B, which is expected to pass. All of them say they not only want to keep streets from getting worse, but also tackle the city’s $900 million backlog of road and other infrastructure repairs.

Below is a graphic that shows three scenarios. You’ll see that even though the mayor has declared the budget balanced, the next mayor will likely have to come up with a good amount of extra money to keep things balanced and deal with pension and road realities.

The first is Sanders’ budget projections from 2013 to 2017. It’s the orange line.

The second assumes Prop. B passes and is fully implemented. It also assumes the city spends enough to keep infrastructure from worsening and borrows $419 million — as is currently planned — to help do that. We’ll call this a “best-case” scenario from a purely budgetary perspective. It’s the blue line.

The third assumes Prop. B passes, but the money-saving pensionable pay freeze doesn’t happen. It also assumes the city spends enough to keep infrastructure from worsening, but doesn’t borrow any more money to do it. This will be a “worst-case” scenario. It’s the black line.

(We’ve adapted the pension figures from various city documents, but all the rest of the numbers we’re using come directly from city sources.)

While the mayor’s projections show only surpluses, both the “best-case” and “worst-case” situations result in a lot of red ink.

In the “best-case” scenario the city will see budget deficits until 2016 and peak at $49.5 million in 2014. In the “worst-case” scenario, the city will have deficits throughout the next mayor’s first term, also peaking in 2014 at $130.5 million. Again for context’s sake, this only includes enough money to stop infrastructure from getting worse, not making it better.

For the most part, the mayoral candidates aren’t dealing with this unfortunate reality.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis says she’ll use Prop. B’s savings in part to address the infrastructure backlog. This graphic shows the money will hardly be there.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher says he’ll make road funding a “priority” but doesn’t say where money would come from.

Congressman Bob Filner says he’ll use money freed up by his pension reform plan, but he overstates his proposal’s savings and understates its risks.

To Carl DeMaio’s credit, he lays out specifically how he would pay for road repairs. But his idea of dedicating all future tax revenue to street fixes is reminiscent of failed policies of mayors’ past.

Regardless of who’s elected, know that the city budget realities will make it difficult for their promises to come true.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. 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 or 619.550.5663.

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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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