San Diego Mayor-elect Bob Filner faces at least one major problem in his campaign pledge to dedicate more than $20 million in new spending to police and fire services: You can only spend a dollar once.

Filner recommitted to his public-safety pledge during a press conference last week. He said building new fire stations in the city’s southeastern neighborhoods and Mission Valley, upgrading the city’s 911 dispatch response system and refurbishing the police firing range takes precedence over keeping those dollars in a reserve account.

But the city has already planned how it will spend the reserve money. And if Filner doesn’t have a way to replenish the reserve account, one key councilmember said the new mayor’s public safety proposal is a nonstarter.

The money Filner wants to spend on public safety comes from the city’s recent $27 million lawsuit settlement with utility giant San Diego Gas & Electric over the 2007 wildfires. Current Mayor Jerry Sanders dumped that money into the city’s reserve account for legal claims.

Sanders also proposed borrowing $25 million to finance some of the same kinds of upgrades that Filner wants: a fire station in Mission Valley, a library in San Ysidro, a sea wall in Mission Beach, among others.

Sanders said he’d divert future money that otherwise would have gone to the legal reserve account to pay for the loan. In other words, by putting the SDG&E settlement in reserves now, the city can finance the cost of new neighborhood projects without needing money for reserves later.

Filner hasn’t made clear whether he supports Sanders’ borrowing plan or how he’d replenish the legal reserve without the SDG&E money. Per its reserve policy, the city wants enough cash in the account to cover half its outstanding legal claims to insulate the budget if the city loses a rash of lawsuits. If Filner takes the SDG&E money, the city would need to replace it by 2019 to meet its policy goal, according to a new report from the Independent Budget Analyst.

Filner needs the City Council to approve his public-safety spending, and that could hinge on his plan to replenish the legal reserve.

“Naturally if we can’t backfill it, I wouldn’t expect the council to do it,” said Councilman Todd Gloria, who is the frontrunner to replace resigning Councilman Tony Young as council president.

Gloria said he’d be willing to change the list of projects planned for the $25 million loan to include more public safety items. But he said he is committed to the city maintaining funding for its reserve policy.

“I think it’s critical,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount the city needed to repay to its reserve fund if it spends the SDG&E settlement. We regret the error.

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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