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What good is city government?

We all rely on city services for the necessary basics that support our daily lives. Ideally, everything runs so smoothly we barely notice all the work that goes into keeping our city clean, safe and functional.

But when those services stall or fall short, the disruptions get our attention and the long-term repercussions can lower our quality of life. When the sewer lines back up, the firefighters arrive late or uncollected garbage piles up, the value of municipal government becomes crystal clear.

In San Diego, repeated budget-cutting during the administration of former Mayor Jerry Sanders has reduced some of our public services to unacceptably low levels.

Saving money is great. But simply slashing budgets without a realistic assessment of whether citizens are getting the services they need is not only irresponsible but ultimately more costly than providing good, efficient services.

The tree-trimming budget is a particularly troubling case in point. Over the past six years, the budget for tree maintenance along our streets was cut in half and then eliminated except for emergencies. An untrimmed, top-heavy palm tree fell on a city resident and left him paralyzed. A jury recently ordered the city to pay $7.65 million for its negligence in failing to maintain the trees, according to Courthouse News Service.

Clearly, that budget-cutting decision did not save money. And, even more importantly, it put the health and safety of San Diego citizens at risk.

Last week, the City Council voted to restore some funding for trimming palm trees in public rights of way. Now the council must take proactive action to determine the appropriate levels of other services, rather than waiting until damage is done.

It’s time for a real conversation about the need to deliver the services San Diegans expect and deserve.

To begin with, we are lacking the information and systems to measure whether the services provided to city residents are at adequate levels. And the city pays private contractors to provide many of our services, without sufficient oversight of how well those contractors are doing their jobs.

During the previous administration, the budgets that determine service levels were drastically reduced for many city departments, with the budget taking priority over realistic needs. We need a full accounting of those cutbacks and the services we have lost, from library and swimming pool hours to police car maintenance.

Before the “managed competition” program continues, we need to pause and take stock of our needs as a city. Each managed competition is based on the current service levels of a city department and concludes with a contract awarded either to that department or a private contractor. Already, city administrators have had repeated difficulties defining the work to be done in the contract documents.

To avoid locking us into reduced service levels that put citizens and city finances at risk, the city needs to develop solid measures of service levels and quality. That process should involve residents from all parts of San Diego.

Everyone who lives and pays taxes in San Diego needs the services that only city government can provide. We need debris cleared from the streets and storm drains, safe water piped to our homes and maintenance of fire trucks and garbage trucks completed regularly — to name just a few crucial services.

Good fiscal stewardship is not just a matter of doing things on the cheap. It means getting good value for money spent. It’s no bargain to shortchange city residents on basic services and put public health and safety at risk.

Corinne Wilson is research and policy lead at the Center on Policy Initiatives, a San Diego nonprofit dedicated to economic equity for working people and communities.

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Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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