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?

Advertisements

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.

Shoulda Didda

Here, noble three readers, are my picks for who , come Wednesday, probably “didda” win after the chads clear—and who probably “shoulda “won:

MAYOR
Gentleman Jerry has had a good year: fires left him coated in good publicity Teflon, the return to the bonds markets (albeit limited in scope and at less than optimum rates) is a major step away from the municipal fiscal brink and no major oops have stuck to him, allegations of corruption by Mauling Mike Aguirre not withstanding. But Jerry’s scorecard of campaign promises met is even bleaker than the current Padre standings. And the return to the bonds markets is months later than he promised. Meanwhile City services continue to deteriorate and the mayor is on a collision course of epic NASCAR proportions with City employees over pensions.

Sander’s saving grace is that millions spent by supply-side businessman turned progressive civic savior St.eve Francis of the City’s hasn’t been the definitive tipping point one might have thought it to have been. Granted, given how the dollar has been doing in recent months, four mil just doesn’t buy what it used to. But Francis has not been able to translate his media onslaught into a coherent narrative of why Jerry, despite his shortcomings, should be dumped. Or, more importantly, why used-to-be-hard-right-now-coming-from-the-left Francis should do the dumping. Francis has positioned himself in the worst of both San Diego political worlds: progressives don’t trust him and conservatives resent him. He has not delivered a compelling narrative of just what drove his Paul on the road to Damascus moment of political conversion, leaving many to suspect cheap political opportunism as the motivation and not true social enlightenment.

Still, Francis has been able to do respectfully well against an incumbent supported by most of the City power establishment, from the GOP to the UT to the business community in general. He’s within five percent or so of Sanders in polls. And, while the other runner-ups are running far behind, the five to ten percent of the vote they might get tomorrow could possibly throw this race into a fall runoff. Which would give Stevo time to retool his message and reintroduce himself to the independents and crossover progressives he’d need to win in November.

Didda: Sanders wins a narrow victory tomorrow putting this to bed.
Shoulda: Voters burned by a succession of nice but nonperforming mayors should dump Jerry and take the chance on Francis, proven or not.

CITY ATTORNEY
I’ve laid out my pros for keeping Mike Aguirre, warts (…tantrums, media stunts, over-using of the “C” word, poor press conference fashion statements…) and all. Numerous times. His detractors have laid out their case to dump (or, preferably, immolate and scatter the ashes to the next Santa Ana winds) him as well. Mike Aguirre is the Hillary Clinton of San Diego politics: we all fully well know his negatives by now and fully well know what he stands for. The same cannot be said for his primary primary challenger, Judge Jan, whose campaign has been a statement in blandness. Meanwhile, of Aguirre’s two City Council opponents, Scott Peters is clearly the standout having demonstrated consistent—though often erroneous—leadership on the Council. But Peter’s opposition to continuing the investigation of Sunroad alone defines what he would be like as City Attorney—and, in my view, disqualifies him from consideration for the office. That’s without even considering the various pension-fiasco votes he cast. Ditto Brian Maienschein, except for the leadership thing, which he hasn’t really demonstrated. Think of him as Peter’s lite. That being said:

Didda: Aguirre gets his 30%+ and goes on to the fall runoff, probably against Goldsmith. What happens then is still, as the statisticians would say, a stochastic event.
Shoulda: Aguirre wins outright. San Diego, do you really want to go back to the Golden Gwynn days? And, his own warts and all, Peters would be a better choice than Judge Jan.

CITY COUNCIL DISTRICT ONE
Didda: Phil Thalheimer’s money beats Marshall Merrifield’s, buying him the right to stand against Sherri “The populist pauper” Lightner come fall.
Shoulda: Sherri wins outright as the vox populi speaks to say it’s tired of guys with tons of money trying to buy their way into office. Say what you will about the sordidness of soliciting campaign contributions. In the absence of public funding of campaigns, it is still better than just letting those with money already steamroller over those without.

COUNCIL DISTRICT THREE & FIVE
Given the matchups (or, in District Five, lack thereof) I can’t muster the emotional energy to pontificate on these two. Except, to point out, just how much I am really looking forward to four years of Carl Pod-boy DeMaio jovially joshing with Roger Hedgecock about outsourcing as many City Services as possible to for-profit private contractors who can then outsource them to a Chinese subcontractor using Pakistani labor imported through Saudi Arabia.

COUNCIL DISTRICT SEVEN
Didda: Marti Emerald beats April Boling by a reasonable spread.
Shoulda: Marti Emerald beats April Boling by a reasonable spread.

PROPA
Didda: Exempting fire and police personnel from privatization/outsourcing is a sure winner. After all, after supporting the troops, we love to support our cops and firemen (although not with competitive wages and benefit packages…). Prop A passes by a landslide.
Shoulda: Any social conservative government-is-bad-private-sector-is-heaven types who don’t vote no on Prop A should be forced to wear a scarlet “H” for sheer hypocrisy. The “managed competition” crowd will tell you that the private sector is always more competent and efficient than government. So why, then, should any of us entrust the most important function of government—keeping us all physically alive and safe—to such incompetent government? If trash collection and midlevel paper-shuffling can be done cheaper and better by the private sector, why not police and fire? After all, for most of human history these functions, when provided, were largely provided by private entities outside of government anyway. Or could it be, perchance, that there are some things that affect the common good that government can do better than the private sector? And if that includes cops, firemen and lifeguards(and, apparently, Marines, Blackwater notwithstanding) might it not include at least some of the other providers of government services conservatives would target for privatization? Perish the thought.

PROP B
Didda: Ditto Prop A, this passes by a comfortable margin.
Shoulda: Prop B should have expanded the Council by at least three seats to provide better, focused attention by representatives to the people they purport to represent.

PROP C
Didda & Shoulda: Donna Frye is wrong about Prop C. She says allowing the Mayor to have so much influence over who will audit the City books is like allowing the fox into the hen house. Actually, it’s more like moving the whole hen house into the fox’s den. Prop C should—and probably will—fail. I mean, how many times will you expect to see Carl DeMaio and Donna Frye agreeing on anything?

OK. Now go vote.

An Odd Year

Elections in odd-numbered council districts and an odd trio challenging an odd city attorney make for odd times Read the rest in CityBeat Online HERE.

Excerpt:

Am I the only one mildly creeped out by Carl DeMaio? He shows up on the local political scene six years ago, fully formed but without any real history behind him, like he had just emerged from a pod cultivated at the Reagan Ranch and dispatched to infect San Diego with his conservative mantra: Government is bad, taxes are too high, downsize this, outsource that, reform government by taking it back to 19th-century laissez faire, etc. Every time I hear or see him, I wonder if little Carl DeMaio doppelgangers in smooth suits are peddling the same neo-con gospel in city councils and boards of supervisors from Klamath Falls, Ore., to Beaufort, S.C. Then I snap out of it and realize: Of course they are.