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Statement: “On the City Council, David Alvarez solved a $47 million budget deficit,” the Alvarez mayoral campaign wrote in a candidate statement sent to voters this week.

Determination: Misleading

Analysis: Mayoral candidates David Alvarez and Kevin Faulconer are both eager to establish their financial chops as the mayor’s race ramps back up.

Alvarez chose to highlight his role in addressing a past city budget shortfall in a city-produced voter information pamphlet that includes information from both campaigns. It went out to voters this week.

Alvarez claimed he “solved” a $47 million budget deficit, a pretty bold claim for a one-term City Council member who clashed with former Mayor Jerry Sanders. Alvarez and fellow City Council members sign off on city’s budget but the mayor and his or her staffers actually craft the budget that’s approved. The majority of Alvarez’s budget votes came under Sanders.

Alvarez took a more active role in the budget process in 2011.

Just months after he was elected to the City Council, Alvarez penned a six-page memo detailing 20 ways the city could address a deficit in the city’s day-to-day budget for fiscal year 2012. Alvarez’s suggestions added up to nearly $47 million, the size of the city’s forecasted budget shortfall at that time.

This was an unusual move. Former Councilman Carl DeMaio proposed numerous city budget cuts during his four-year stint on the City Council but Alvarez’s March 2011 plan made him the first Democratic city councilman to propose exactly how to close a budget gap.

But most of the budget proposals in Alvarez’s memo weren’t original.

He pulled extensively from a menu of budget options the City Council reviewed that spring, a citizen task force analysis and even DeMaio’s 2010 Roadmap to Recovery.

Two weeks after Alvarez released his memo, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders proposed significant cuts to library, recreation center and city pool hours to balance the books.

The City Council, though, wanted to avoid any service cutbacks.

Alvarez touted his memo as a way to assert the City Council’s budget preferences. He and then-City Council President Tony Young shared the details of the memo in a joint press conference.

“We plan on using the full extent of our legislative authority to make sure that the mayor understands what our priorities are,” Alvarez said.

At least 12 of the 20 proposals included in Alvarez’s memo made into the final version of the city’s fiscal year 2012 budget in some form.

For example, the adopted budget eliminated city-provided cell phones for many city employees to save cash, reduced the amount the city planned to spend on supplies and outside contracts and added a fee for fire department responses to false alarms.

It’s unclear how many of those tweaks ended up in the budget solely because they were included in Alvarez’s memo, particularly because most of the ideas it contained were drawn from other sources. Sanders never publicly said he’d make budget changes due to Alvarez’s memo, and the final budget adopted by the City Council in June 2011 didn’t incorporate all of the suggestions in Alvarez’s deficit-busting blueprint.

The expected savings associated with the Alvarez proposals that were included in the budget added up to $35 million, short of both the total $57 million shortfall Sanders announced later in the budget process and the $47 million figure Alvarez cites in the voter guide.

Yet Alvarez’s claim in the voter information pamphlet implies he alone solved the budget deficit. That’s not the case.

Alvarez acknowledged fellow City Council members’ roles in a Friday statement, as well as his own stewardship.

“Real leadership involves working with others and their ideas to solve problems,” he said. “We have a strong City Council-strong mayor form of government, but the City Council hadn’t flexed its muscle on prior budgets.”

Alvarez’s latter point is significant.

The 2012 budget process marked a turning point for the City Council. It gained more authority to analyze and change city budgets after voters approved the strong mayor form of government. (Voters made that system permanent in June 2010.)

Alvarez was among those who pushed to exercise the increased engagement allowed by the relatively new form of government but that doesn’t mean he single-handedly solved a budget deficit.  He relied on ideas from multiple sources to address a projected $47 million deficit and then included those suggestions in a memo. This memo wasn’t wholly adopted by the mayor or the City Council.

We call a statement misleading when it takes an element of truth and badly distorts or exaggerates it, giving a deceptive impression.

The ruling fits here because Alvarez did submit a set of solutions to cope with a significant budget deficit but it wasn’t as if he came up with the ideas himself, nor was his proposal adopted by the City Council. Furthermore, it’s not clear whether Sanders or other city officials implemented any of the solutions Alvarez suggested simply because of his memo. Those that were included in the budget didn’t add up to $47 million.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

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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