Read My Lips. I Mean My Other Lips.

Gentleman Jerry Sanders has had his full-on Bush moment.  (That would be the kinder, gentler Bush 41 as opposed to the swaggeringer, already all but forgottener Bush 43.)

Jerry Sanders, Special  Election Edition 2005“Read My Lips. No New Municipal Taxes.”*

(*Offer does not apply to “fee increases”  e.g. Sewer.)

Jerry Sanders, New And Improved Don’t Won’t The City To Go Bankrupt On His Watch 2010 Limited Edition:    New Taxes?  Er, Okay!”

Now, the proposed sales tax increase is probably never going to see the revenue light of fiscal day.  Come November, voters perched on the edge of a double-dip recession will probably prove reluctant to open their pocketbooks to bailout a city government that has proven reluctant to realistically deal with its financial problems for an entire decade.  And the “Reform for Revenue” measure is about as Rube Goldberg  a contraption as has ever been put on a San Diego Ballot.  What with all its “privatize this” and “renegotiate that” provisions, this initiative has more moving parts than the Space Shuttle.  And, for all the hand-wringing over budget cutbacks,  firestation brownouts and pool drainings, the real pain voters will soon experience in municipal meltdown has but put off, if not for much longer.

But it’s interesting to watch the evolution from Jerry Sanders Running For Office: Pander to the voters by telling them you can have no tax increases, no cuts to city services and no municipal maladies of any kind;   to Jerry Sanders Running For Legacy: Acknowledge  that, while yes  fiscal reform is needed at this late date it’s either steep cuts in services or some token increase in taxes.

The simple reality is San Diego is now several billion in the red, the economy is getting ready to tank again as the local housing market looks to drop into the next ditch and  the only thing separating America’s Finest City and other basically bankrupt cities is time.  How long, one must wonder, before the city starts turning off every other street  light to save money like Colorado Springs?

Of course the politics of all this right out of the  San Diego provincial playbook, with the two Republicans on the non-partisan council voting against the six Democrats on the non-partisan council thereby setting up the next GOP contender for the non-partisan Mayoralship to boldly campaign on the slogan, “Read My Lips – oh, heck, you know the rest.”  (One can see Carl D practicing the line in the mirror every morning.)

By then though the game of San Diego municipal musical chairs may be over and a city that has been dancing on the brink for ten years may finally tip over.  And by then  a minor half-cent increase will do about as much good for San Diego finances as a roll of duct tape would have helped the Titanic.

In the interim it would be nice if mayoral mouthpiece Darrel Pudgil took a moment spent praising the mayor for his bold leadership in trying to close the near hundred mil budget gap (and gee, after only five yeas in office) to issue a small little apology to Darling Donna Frye.  Back in 2005 His Gentlemanness, in a  very ungentleman-like way,  savaged  the honest council woman for simply suggesting the city consider what Sanders himself has now embraced.

If you’re worried about legacy, Jerry, why don’t you go the whole nine yards and admit Donna was right a half-decade ago?

Fried

Late word that Darling Donna has decided to sit out the race to out Righty Ron Roberts is disappointing though, from what I’ve read and heard, not unexpected.  The Board of Supervisors is not exactly the most exciting of civic electoral posts though its significance to the local quality of life is far in excess of its public profile–or notoriety. A Frye-Roberts free for all would have been interesting and useful to focusing attention on the body–as only a Frye candidacy would do.  One can only hope that Donna is saving herself for one last fling at the Mayor’s office.  Otherwise it just might well be Carl Demonic DeMaio as the new strong mayor in chief.   Oh, where have all the a good Democrats gone?

History is (de)Bunk

I am soooo relieved.  The pension crisis is all but resolved.  San Diego fiscal failure is almost certainly now averted.  The SS San Diegotanic, only inches from the belly-ripping ice berg of municipal debt has abruptly changed course and now heads for safe and serene waters.  All, now, is well at last.  At least that’s what your Captain, Gentleman, who told all you passengers on his fiscal ship in last Sunday’s UT.   Thanks to the bold actions of his administration, San Diego (just forty-nine months after his taking office mind you, but a nothing in glacial time) has  enacted the needed reforms  to solve the pension crisis, reign in the costs of government and avoid the false salvation of bankruptcy. 

Indeed, to hear his Honor tell it, its actually been these false prophets of fiscal futility, these nattering nabobs of bankruptcy negativity, who have been holding the City back from the promised land.  “In my view, the bankruptcy con job is nearly as irresponsible as the schemes that dug us into a financial hole in the first place,” Sanders said.  And bravo to that.  It was most certainly that Mike Aguirre (remember him?) and his constant whining about the fact that the pension deficit was getting worse every year despite the claims of the Mayor and the council to the contrary, that meddlesome maniac Mike and his dropping the “B” word in polite conversation, that’s kept San Diego on the fiscal ropes.  It’s been people like Pat Shea—the Igor to Aguirre’s  Dr. Frankenstein building the monster of municipal bankruptcy—who have systematically derailed real change by—gasp—talking about bankruptcy as an option to the City’s woes:

“For too long, progress in closing San Diego’s structural budget deficit has been sidetracked by a disinformation campaign that contends, against all evidence, that the city would be better off if it filed for bankruptcy… But the truth is talk of bankruptcy impedes progress on real substantive pension reform, and it poisons the climate for thoughtful solutions to our structural deficit. “

That’s right.  It hasn’t been the wholesale unwillingness of the Council, the Mayor or the people of San Diego to face fiscal facts and embrace substantial cuts to services and significant increases sources of revenues that’s kept the city out of budgetary whack.  It’s been the discussion of bankruptcy.  Oh, to have back all those hours all of us in San Diego have wasted talking about the dreaded “B.”  Why, its gotten so we can’t even have a discussion around the family dinner table about American Idol without someone or other sidetracking the conversation with a detailed analysis of Orange County’s old bankruptcy filing.  It’s a wonder the Mayor and the Council have had time to get anything else done at all.

Just one small point, though.  What is it that has changed since I talked about the danger of bankruptcy  here, here, here or even here that has actually changed in real terms over the Mayor’s watch?   How is the city budget and the pension plan on a truly more sustainable path than it was when Dick “Such a Lousy Thing to Happen To Such A Nice Guy” Murphy was being run out of town on a rail?  But, of course, as the Mayor says, any lingering fiscal unpleasantries  should be laid at doorstep of those suggesting a discussion of Plan B. 

Me thinks His Mayoralship does protest too much.  Why should Sanders go out of his way to bring up and bash the bankruptcy option—an option he pretty much says he settled back with his election in ’05 and reelection in ’08—unless that option really is potentially back on the table in a big way. 

But at least San Diegans can take solace. George W. Bush may have been the decider but Jerry Sanders is the “Debunker,” taking on all rival narratives to his overarching theme that it’s morning in San Diego.   Thank goodness. Now we can go proudly into the future completely forgetting about the past.  By golly,.  Jerry Sanders is our own Henry Ford.

Up In Smoke

Happy 2010, y’all.  I’ve been hobbling around on a wrenched knee since New Years (its an old injury—never try to take down a 6’4”. Damn you, ’94 International Rugby finals…) so time and energy to blog has been limited.  My  first observation of the New Year is:  hats off to the City Council last week for putting off the inevitable yet again and delaying coming up with a  municipal set of rules for medicinal marijuana use by San Diegans.  (Wow, San Diego is now officially less progressive than New Jersey! I can’t wait for the City Council to take a position on Prohibition and Women’s voting rights…) 

I say inevitable because, I as lay supine last week, knee strapped and iced, it occurred to me that complete legalization  of devil weed, medicinal or otherwise, is only a matter of time.  We aging baby boomers will see to that, trust me.

You know us baby boomers.  We’re the  most spoiled, obnoxious generation in human history–the “I want it now, I want it all and when I’m done with it there won’t be anything left for anyone else” generation. (Kids, this is your Uncle Carl speaking in a moment of complete generational candor, so listen up.  If you really want an inheritance from your Boomer parents go out tonight, slip under their car and cut the brake lines.  Otherwise they will take your inheritance to the crypt,  Pharaoh style. Mayhap the people in Soylent Green had it right…) 

Boomers? Do you really think we Boomers are going to go into infirmity feeling any pain?  I mean, my knees are going out at the mid-century mark (oh,  why didn’t I run the down and out like Fouts told me to instead of going into the Bengal’s line.  Damn you, Freezer Bowl…).  What they’re going to like in twenty or thirty years doesn’t bear scrutiny.  And there is only so much OxyContin (Rush Limbaugh excepted, of course) or ibuprofen  you can take .   So as I and the rest of my Boomer cohort feel the pain of age, do you really think we won’t vote to legalize the substance that defined our generation from our parents’ in the first place?  Hell, in ten or twenty years Marijuana won’t just be legal, it will be subsidized under Medicare!  The children of the Baby Boomers will have to tell their children not to eat the brownies at grandma’s house and grandpa will spend all his time giggling in a rocking chair of the front porch.

So, kudos to the City Council for once again being at the cutting edge of being behind the times.  As for me and my knee,  for now I’ll be content deal with the pain the old fashion way—ice and Advil–as I internalize my first lesson of 2010:  Never chest bump someone younger and bigger than you on New Years Eve while dancing if you want to walk the next day.  Damn you, Chumbawamba!

Meanwhile, just what has the Governor been smoking lately?  Thinking the state should spend more on education than prisons? Sheesh.  How Cheech can you get.  And the Mayor tonight, telling everyone how the city is going to ride out its current fiscal shortfalls without some real, serious municipal pain?  That, my friends, is pure Chong.

The Axman Cometh

Forgot pigeons.  The most foul municipal fowls in San Diego are rosters.  And they’ve come home to roost

Cranky old misanthropes (like yours truly) have being saying ever since the great crisis of ’02 that the City of San Diego was only putting off its day of reckoning.  The pension crisis became business as usual once the Housing and Credit bubble hid the reality of how underfunded long term pension obligations remained.  Now that the bubbles have popped the pension fund has once again become a huge drain on general fund resources.  And, of course, when investment income streams dry up tax revenue streams are sure to follow.  

Think of the City’s current financial problems as being the same as California’s drought.  No snowpack, no water.  Sinking economy, no revenue, simple as that.  Yet, rather then move to shore up City finances during the good years (and, believe it or not, 2004-2008 were good years) the Mayor and Council took the low, easy road (just as previous Mayors and Councils did during the good years of the 1990s).  No significant moves were made to reign in pensions, trim city work forces or, more importantly, raise revenues to pay for all that “big government” that everybody seems to dislike—unless it’s cut, that is.  Then all those Tea partiers tend to whine about the lack of governmental lemon and sugar.

So now the Mayor and Council must make cuts.  First on the block,  some 200 jobs of mostly mid to lower level employees for a savings of some $20 million dollars.  Not bad.  Just $150 million to go.  The Mayor’s office also said today that most of those who lose these jobs will be able to transfer into currently vacant positions scheduled to be filled.  I’m trying to understand how this isn’t really a push and not a real cut (the net savings from the 200  cuts being offset by filling and paying salary on the 200 vacant positions).  In any event, the savings is but a pittance.  Other bombshell ideas – like pulling out all the fire rings at City beaches to save a few hundred grand – may be DOA as the Coastal Commission sets up hurdles and local residents rally to save their right to pass a Bota bag around the municipal camp fire.

Side note 1:  While 3400 people have signed up for the Facebook group “Save the San Diego Fire Pits”  I must ask how many have signed up for the Facebook group “Raise My Taxes To Save the San Diego Fire Pits”?  The answer, me thinkst, will be zero.   Which is symptomatic of the structural problem:  the Voters want.  They’ve been conned into thinking (by elected officials and the voters own venality) that they can have without paying,   They can’t.  At least forever.  And forever seems to be ending over the next two fiscal years. 

Side note 2:  If ACE parking can have dozens of unattended parking lots where drivers simply swipe a card or insert cash into a machine to get a little ticket saying they’ve rented a parking space for a set amount of time, why can’t the City do the same with fire rings?  Set up machines and charge an hourly rate that covers maintenance costs with a little profit (extra revenue) on top of it.  If people want to hang out at the rings let them pay for it.  And DON’T subcontract it out to ACE parking so they can take the profit.  Surely City employees are competent enough to manage the service.

I find myself incredulous that, increasingly, the only voice operating outside of fiscal fantasy at 202 C Street is Carl “Demonic” Demaio who keeps pointing out that one time fixes ain’t gonna fix this problem.  I differ with Demaio in terms of remedy – he wants to cut, cut, cut – though his proposed cuts alone aren’t going to fix this problem.   

The city needs to do three things to get out of this mess.  First, it needs to figure out a win-win strategy to restructure the pension fund that will cut down on yearly outward obligations without negatively impacting pension recipients.  How you do that, short of bankruptcy proceedings, I don’t know.  But the municipal unions are not going to hand back the benefits the city legally gave them.  Nor should they.  The people of San Diego benefited from their services and are bound to the agreed to compensation.  Maybe inkind compensation—like boosting medical or long term care provisions in exchange for cash-out offsets—can be considered.

Second, the City needs to pursue deficit-offset funding sources.  Unfortunately, most of these – State and, in particular, Federal—are outside the City’s control.  Some, though, may offer more flexibility.  I can’t believe I’m about to write this but, Keynesian economics wins out.  If the local economy is hurting the only way to generate a bigger revenue base in the future is to invest heavily in the infrastructure for such a base in the present.  That means, if ever there was a time to pursue the three big city infrastructure projects — new city hall, new main library and, gulp and heaven forgive me, new football stadium—this is the time.

Big concrete and steel projects mean big spending and payroll in the region over the next five plus years.  Which will help offset municipal deficits projected into that same period. Which will generate additional revenues (at least from the stadium and eventual ancillary development) in the out years.  With Obama banging on bankers to show more civic responsibility and do what bankers are supposed to do—lend!—the credit crunch may be coming to an end.  This can offer the city a tap of money to support these projects.  In addition,  getting these projects underway may open up taps of state and federal monies as well.  Indeed, perhaps the NFL and Chargers organization can be hit up for more up front monies now in exchange for an expedited stadium deal and public monies later.  While it would constitute another one of those lousy one-time money fixes, a patch in a sinking boat is still a patch.

I know I’ve railed against all three projects in the past but, as Keynes said, when times are hard having the government pay a man to dig a hole and fill it back up again is still better than having the man unemployed.  Ultimately a new Charger stadium may not be the best long term use of municipal monies but it may be one of the quicker ways to get money into the municipal treasury and the local pocket.   

Third and finally, the Mayor and council have to look at longer term fixes, such as true-costing future development projects to be sure that, when the next building boom and bubble comes, as it inevitably will, developers and buyers must pay the true public cost of their projects in terms of future city services and expenditures rather than just passing them off to the public trough.  

There is, ultimately, no such thing as a free lunch or fire ring. Time to roast some roosting rosters of fiscal foolishness and set the house in order.

Crisis? What Crisis?

I have a piece on San Diego’s pension fund discomforts and budgetary woes today in the analog edition of CB.  Check it out here.

And what’s all the pension fund  hoo-haw about, anyway?  I thought that fiasco was over?  I mean, wasn’t it only the chicken little likes of fringe thinkers  at Voice of San Diego or The Reader or the whacko lefties  at at  CityBeat who cited—get this—official facts and figures to foolishly warn that the pension was still heading full-bore into multi-billion dollar oblivion? After all, banishing Mike  “The sky is falling and bankruptcy  still looms” Aguirre from public life was by itself supposed to solve any lingering pension problems.  Did you hear our now erstwhile city attorney  Jan  “the Ferret man”  Goldsmith  saying anything a pension crisis during last year’s campaign—or ever since?

Back when Mad Mike was warning the pension deficit could drown the city in red ink the total magnitude of the problem as around a billion dollars.  Now we awaken from slumber (or, better said, personal financial nightmares) to discover that the deficit has swollen to over two billion dollars?  Where was the screaming along the way?  True, it was little less than a year ago that Joe Esuchanko, a consulting actuary for the City of San Diego, dropped his little bombshell about the pension deficit exploding four times faster than local home prices were imploding.  But the city council spent more time taking one last opportunity to bash Aguirre back then  for running hundred thousand dollar office benefits than deal with Esuchanko’s stark numbers so how serious could the problem be?

I seem to recall reading a piece by local icon of intelligence Don Bauder last spring in which he was pointing out how bad the pension fund already was—and how much worse it was going to be—but then the fund’s actuary (I think it was) stood him up for an interview and never got back to him.  Correct me on this if I’m wrong—I’ve been going through back issues of the Reader looking for the exact quote.  But that was months ago.  We’re only having a kinda public awareness of this now?

Meanwhile Pension Fund Hefe  David Wescoe seems complacent about two billion dollar deficits.  According to him, the chasm of debt due to the crash of the pension fund portfolio is simply a natural fluctuation of the market which will no doubt right itself in the long term.  Of course that is what the pension fund management said back in 2002—when the pension debt was half of what it is now.  Inspires confidence, doesn’t it

And the worst  Jay Goldstone is worried about is laying off another 300-400  jobs because they had to kick the $30 million they had to give to the Pension kitty in any event?  The city’s required pension fund contributions may routinely top a quarter billion per year over the next decade to maybe 20%-25%  of their total unrestricted general fund  outlays!  At the rate things are going in a few years, the city may only be able to employ 300-400 people, total.

Summer Song

 Broke my long hiatus from punditry today with an article on the city’s faux-budget. Read it, hot from the pages from CityBeat Analog, here. Haven’t written since my last, aptly named entry, “Last Hurrah” back in April. Don’t really plan to write any more until the end of August. I’m not teaching this summer, for the first time in around 20 years, so I’m taking the summer off from my usual concerns–teaching, administrating, teaching, punditrying and, of course, teaching–to pursue other pursuits (beach, patio, other writing projects, beach, patio and, above all, five o’clock proseco time in the gazebo. I’m not kidding. We have a freakin’ gazebo and, every summer day at 5, adjourn there for a glass of cold proseco. It’s a good life.)

In any event, what is there to say right now that’s worth saying? At the local level things in June, 2009 are not really all that different than in June, 2000 or 2001. The city continues to muddle along with the usual mediocre municipal mundanity: precarious finances, feckless leadership and a gentle diminishment of America’s finest city to just another over-extended, under-repaired American town. Frye will be off the council soon, Jerry will be off to gentlemanly retirement and DeMaio will be Mayor—so it has been written, it seems, so it will be done. The Tribe of Five Old White People will continue to dominate the County. The Airport Authority will continue to plan billions of dollars in new projects that will never be spent for an airport that will never be adequate or replaced. The Chargers will continue to lobby for their new stadium which will inevitably be built with public monies (my suggestion, alas, that they build it beneath a three trillion dollar convention center expansion—which, I think, around the amount the convention center really dreams of spending) whether it takes another year or ten. Only the decline of the UT and the tantalizing possibility that the new owners might realize that if Kittle and Kompany continue to dictate editorial viewpoint the paper’s circulation will continue to shrink to the sixty-five and older north of Mira Mesa Boulevard crowd offers some hope for a break in the local monotony. Who knows – by fall the UT may have a new crowd (albeit probably a bunch of twenty-somethings paid minimum wage) flogging the pagewaves. Couldn’t hurt.

Of course, things have changed dramatically in Sacramento. Six years ago we had an unpopular second-term governor disowned even by his own party presiding over massive state deficits, declining services, increasing taxes, unrestrained partisan warfare with absolutely no realistic solutions being offered by the legislative leadership lugs. Oh, how times have changed. (Dramatic pause for sarcastic effect.)

And, at the national level, we have our Obama moment, Act One. Tobacco has been regulated. Some form of healthcare reform is on the way. The economy is no longer sinking. Yay. Except that the tobacco reform is about two generations too late to really matter, the healthcare reform is going to be delightfully watered down and any leveling off of economy we’re currently seeing is actually a consequence of actions taken last fall before Obama came into office. It takes around six months or more for policy decisions in DC to trickle into the real economy—the Obama stimulus won’t really begin to be felt until late summer and, by then, will be revealed, I fear, to be too little. Unemployment continues to rise – my bet is it eventually hits 11%-12%. Foreclosures continue to mount and the other shoe of the real estate debacle—the commercial side of the house—is caving. (Count empty storefronts and commercial “For Rent” signs next time you’re out.) At some point Obama’s love affair with Wall Street and Wall Street types has got to end and more aggressive Keynesian tactics aimed at homeowners and consumers have got kick in. According to retail experts, it’s going to take ten years, at this point, to get back to consumer spending levels in 2007. If everything starts turning around now. Obama keeps going the path he’s going and he runs the risk of becoming the American Kiichi Miiyazawa, (the Japanese Prime Minister who helped keep Japan from falling into depression back in 1990-1991 but, instead, ushered in a decade plus of stagnation.) The world can—and did—survive a stagnant Japan. It won’t survive, with any stability, a stagnant United States. Meanwhile national discourse has degenerated to a nasty level that simultaneously makes dock workers blush and insults the intelligence of second graders. I’m taking the summer off from Fox, MSBNC and the entire AM dial. I haven’t heard one original thing said (Obama is a radical, communist-socialist-muslim-American-hater and Republicans are Rush Limbaugh) in months by any of my brethren (albeit it far more lucratively compensated kin) in punditry. My bet is, come September 1, I turn on Sean Hannity and Chris Matthews after a two-month hiatus and I won’t have missed a beat. Maybe, by end of summer, democracy will have come to Iran. (Which I doubt. Erstwhile president Ahmadinukejihad will emerge from this ultimately stronger, probably having co-opted the authority of the religious clerics and, thereby, regressing Iran back to a standard authoritarian model.) If democracy does triumph, however, people are going to (oh, it gives me gout right down to my little toe to write this) reassess the Bush-Cheney theory of viral democracy. Look at Lebanon. But that’s a debate for another month.

In short, I go into the summer feeling crotchety and persnickety about all things political. By summers end, though, batteries recharged, feelings reinvigorated, I’ll be back to pound the punditry pages. Hopefully in a reformatted format—one of my summer projects is to try and upgrade and integrate this blog into more comprehensive website that can be useful to both my students and you, my faithful reader. (If there are any of you left – alas, even poor Mlaiuppa has bailed on me given my niggardly natterings. ) As such, a bid you summer time adieu. Look for me when the dog days are over, if you care to.