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I won’t guess who will be the next mayor of San Diego, but I do know that he or she will take over at a crucial time in our city’s financial history.
We have, hopefully, experienced the worst of the financial crisis caused by exploding pension payments and financial mismanagement at City Hall. The next mayor may even have some additional flexibility from savings due to the five-year labor deal. With any undesignated revenues, the next mayor should invest wisely by rebuilding San Diego.
More cash may be on hand, but our financial problems are not over. Our new mayor will need to control the impulse to spend the cash, and instead make wise long-term investments in San Diego. Without this fiscal discipline, no mayoral candidate will be able to achieve any promise made on the campaign trail.
The biggest fiscal challenge facing San Diego is crumbling infrastructure. Simply delaying the development of a well thought-out plan and ignoring this massive problem only guarantees that the long-term costs to taxpayers will increase.
Thankfully for our future mayor, the city is already taking several steps to overcome the daunting infrastructure challenge before us. But first, the city must realistically determine how much it needs to invest. The most commonly quoted infrastructure backlog figure in recent years is $898 million. At the risk of incurring a blistering VOSD fact check, I think it’s safe to say the $898 million infrastructure backlog figure is way too low.
The City Council wisely included money for assessments of facilities, sidewalks, parks and the waste-water system in this year’s budget. These assessments will show the actual cost to repair San Diego’s infrastructure is much higher.
The steps taken so far have been relatively non-controversial and are necessary precursors for answering a hard question: How do we pay to fix what we already have? Maintaining a stable financial footing while rebuilding our infrastructure will make the debates on a new City Hall or Chargers stadium look simple by comparison.
Overcoming infrastructure problems alone would be a monumental challenge for any mayor if it were the only issue, but it’s not. The candidates are also talking about increasing neighborhood service levels. The trick will be strategically restoring services not only in an equitable way that meets the varying needs of our unique communities, but also doing so in a manner that saves the city money over time.
A top priority in restoring services should be solving the recruitment and retention problems at the San Diego Police Department. Approximately half of the force is eligible for retirement in the next five years while we are losing about 10 officers a month. Recruitment costs for a new officer tops $100,000.
Adding a couple hundred new officers back on the force will have a huge initial impact on a budget, but the costs of acting as a training ground for other cities’ police departments is a consistent fiscal drain. Furthermore, the force could risk having too many relatively inexperienced officers. Like our infrastructure challenge, rebuilding the police department will take time and effort. Delay only makes the problem worse.
In the next few months, we can expect each candidate will roll out a series of plans making promises on how to improve San Diego. More than delivering on any one initiative however, the next mayor’s first priority must be to protect taxpayers by practicing fiscal discipline. We’ll be paying close attention to how they intend to invest where not doing so will cost more in the long run.
Felipe Monroig is president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. Monroig’s commentary has been edited for clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.