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San Diego mayoral candidate Bob Filner’s suggestion that “it’s time to add not to subtract” when it comes to the city’s finances might be the single biggest distinction between his campaign and that of his opponent, Carl DeMaio.

DeMaio stakes his entire campaign on his ideas to fix the budget. But as we noted in an in-depth story last week, he’s promised more improvements to city services than his budget plan might be able to deliver.

“I think we’ve cut and cut and cut and cut,” Filner said in an interview. “When it comes to police or fire or libraries or rec centers, it’s time to add not to subtract.”

It won’t be that simple and many of Filner’s money-saving ideas are narrow or legally questionable.

The city’s budget does look much healthier than it used to. There’s little worry of hemorrhaging money or services like in years past. Mayor Jerry Sanders has declared an end both to the city’s pension and financial crises.

But city services remain far below levels seen a decade ago, and roads and other infrastructure continue to worsen each year. And when you combine projected increased pension costs with current figures, the city could be looking at a $20 million-plus deficit next year.

Filner said his overall budget strategy will be to redirect money that he believes supports private interests toward programs with concrete public benefits. He wants to divert money from these other areas into frontline services and infrastructure.

Spend Fire Settlement and Redevelopment Money

In the past year, the city received $27 million from San Diego Gas & Electric to settle claims related to the 2007 wildfires and $23.5 million for its day-to-day budget from the unwinding of the state redevelopment program. City officials put the payments into reserve accounts.

Filner wants to spend both. He says the fire settlement should go toward improving public safety. And he wants to funnel the former redevelopment money into neighborhood infrastructure.

Both ideas present challenges. The city already plans to spend the wildfire settlement indirectly. It dumped that cash into a reserve fund used to cover legal claims against the city. That freed up money to cover the cost of a $25 million loan to help repair a sea wall in Mission Beach, build libraries in Mission Hills, San Ysidro and Skyline and a fire station in Mission Valley.

It’s uncertain how much redevelopment money will flow into city coffers. Last year saw a $20 million-plus windfall, but this year the city’s only budgeting $2.5 million from the end of redevelopment. The state’s unwinding of the program has left little clarity about future budgets.

“Everybody that we speak to, and I’m sure everybody that you speak to, has no idea what’s going to happen year to year,” said Seth Gates, a fiscal and policy analyst with the city’s independent budget analyst.

The city also faces the risk that as much as $25 million a year in loan payments from the previous Convention Center expansion and Petco Park could shift from the redevelopment ledger to the day-to-day budget, creating a massive new expense.

Spending money from reserves comes with downsides, too. The independent budget analyst has warned that doing so could hurt the city’s credit rating, making it more expensive to borrow money in the future.

Shift Cash to Public Safety

As we’ve noted before, Filner wants to shift about $15 million a year from a hotelier-approved surcharge on hotel bills from tourism promotion to public safety. This idea faces significant legal difficulties because of state rules on fees that can be raised without a public vote.

The Bottom Line

Filner praised Sanders for improving the city’s finances so that politicians don’t have to talk as much about budget cuts anymore.

“We can be talking about moving forward,” Filner said.

But continued uncertainty surrounding the budget and the money needed for service improvements will continue to shackle the next mayor to the city’s balance sheet. Filner’s current ideas aren’t likely to result in much savings.

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 liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.

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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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