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A Primer on San Diego's Budget Deficit

(SAN DIEGO) When it comes to the budget challenges facing San Diego, Councilmember Todd Gloria believes it is critical for the City to share information with the public and for the public to share input with City leaders. “With a budget deficit of approximately $200 million, there is no doubt that the public will be impacted, and the City Council needs to hear from our neighbors about your priorities and ideas,” Councilmember Gloria said.

Though the complexity of the current budget situation does not lend itself well to soundbites or brief newsletter articles, Councilmember Gloria assembled this primer so San Diegans are armed with information on which to base their input.

Where we are: As reported in the October issue of the District Three Dialogue, Mayor Jerry Sanders released the City‟s Five Year Financial Outlook on October 1 and projected a $179 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year. The Independent Budget Analyst reports that the deficit may be closer to $200 million.

What this means: Numbers of this magnitude are hard to grasp for most people. The deficit represents approximately 16% of the City‟s General Fund budget. For the City, this could translate to the complete elimination of the City‟s Park and Recreation Department, Engineering and Capital Projects Department and the Library Department; it could translate to the elimination of the entire Fire-Rescue Department; or it could translate into the elimination of approximately 2,300 of the current 7,000 General Fund employees.

How we arrived: The City‟s current budget troubles are the worst in its history, but several services have actually been cut since Fiscal Year 2001 because of the structural budget deficit. Since then, the number of firefighters per 100,000 San Diegans decreased from 80 to 71; the number of police officers per 100,000 San Diegans decreased from 166 to 158; the average wait time to answer 911 calls worsened from four seconds to 10 seconds; the average number of weekly library hours at each branch decreased from 48 to 40.8; and the average weekly recreation center operating hours decreased from 62.3 to 40.25. Councilmember Gloria believes these facts illustrate the impact previous budget deficits have had on service and should heighten everyone‟s concern about how further cuts will cripple essential City functions.

Moving forward: To address last year‟s shortfall, the City Council made service fees fully cost recoverable and reengineered many of the City‟s business practices. These changes positively impacted the budget by approximately $50 million. Another $32 million was saved when City employees, including Councilmember Gloria, agreed to 6% pay cuts. Again, these responsible actions have already been implemented, meaning additional funds will need to be found elsewhere.

“We currently have over 800 vacant positions, including 106 in Fire-Rescue and 320 in the Police Department, which will not be filled,” said Councilmember Gloria. “Because our options are so limited, our comprehensive solution will include further „efficiencies,‟ which will Most parties have been honest that pursuit of additional revenues must be included in the equation to balance the City‟s ledger. “The longer we go ignoring the need to increase revenues and connecting revenues to the City‟s long-term stability, the worse off San Diego will be,” said Councilmember Gloria.

Because the City has gone so long without addressing the revenue side of the budget equation, the options for new funds are many. As an example, if each household agreed to pay $10.60 per month to cover the cost of trash collection currently provided by the City, $55 million would be available to alleviate some of the service cuts planned for departments including Police and Fire-Rescue. Many options like this require voter approval, adding urgency and importance to including them in the public conversation about the budget.

The newly formed Citizens Revenue Review and Economic Competitiveness Commission will provide additional insight on balancing the budget.

Said Gloria, “As City leaders, my colleagues and I must be honest about our financial circumstances and allow the public the opportunity to decide whether closing fire stations and libraries and slashing police staffing is preferable to paying for something like trash collection or storm water management.”