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Mayor Bob Filner said he started the budget process by telling staffers he wanted to prioritize public safety and neighborhood services.

In his first budget, the mayor managed to eke out some money for new additions in those areas despite a $38.4 million deficit in the city’s operating fund.

Staffers penciled in money for 16 more police recruits next year, new computers at branch libraries, more lifeguard hours and year-round access to the Alpha Project’s Emergency Winter Shelter.

There was also funding for a citywide bicycle program, temporary staffing for the 2015 celebration at Balboa Park and a new traffic plan for the park’s central mesa.

Those priorities largely line up with pledges he made on the campaign trail.

But the new mayor could only go so far, even with a $1.2 billion day-to-day budget.

“We had to close that $40 million deficit plus any kinds of any additions I wanted to make,” Filner said.

That forced the mayor to dip into a handful of city funds. His budget also incorporated a $1.4 million reduction in recent rival City Attorney Jan Goldsmith’s budget, a move Filner said was warranted because Goldsmith’s office didn’t take the cuts other city departments weathered in recent years. (For more details on this phenomenon, check out this 2011 post.)

A planned sidewalk studyand infrastructure assessment didn’t make Filner’s capital improvements budget. Nor did a City Heights skate park the mayor once promised to some enthusiastic teens.

At a Monday press conference, Filner called his first proposed budget transitional. Staffers spent months working on it before Filner took office and then the new mayor came in with his own priorities.

Then, Filner said, he was confronted with a shortfall that compromised his ability to make all the investments he wanted.

The deficit largely stems from costs associated with implementing a voter-approved pension initiative as well as loan payments for Petco Park and the Convention Center, costs former Mayor Jerry Sanders didn’t include in his previous budget estimate.

A $21.6 million wildfire settlement from San Diego Gas & Electric that Filner the mayoral candidate suggested should support new public safety infrastructure instead helped close the nearly $40 million budget gap. Some city funds helped too.

Filner emphasized that five-year labor deals could change the situation.

The city could save $25.2 million next year if the City Council and the city’s six unions can agree to five-year deals that incorporate a freeze on pensionable pay.

The city has long sought a structurally balanced budget that doesn’t rely on one-time infusions of cash to cover gaps. (For some background on the city’s history of structural deficits, check out this post.)

A five-year deal would make a structurally balanced budget possible, Filner said.

Such a deal will require six City Council votes rather than the five usually required to pass a measure.

In coming weeks, the City Council will weigh in on the mayor’s budget. They have until June 15 to approve a budget and potential labor deals.

Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at lisa.halverstadt@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0528.

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Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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