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.

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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.

Castles in the Sky

I’ve followed with some interests efforts of the San Diego City Council, spearheaded by council newbie Todd Gloria, to balance homeowner property rights with community interests. Preservationists and residents of “Historic” neighborhoods like Gloria’s own Hillcrest worry that redevelopment unchecked by regulations to provide for continuity in architectural design can mar the rhythm and harmony of neighborhoods long established. I can understand their concern. A glass and stucco modern apartment building replacing a Craftsman bungalow can certainly alter the unique character of a street. Increasing densities changes the dynamics of a neighborhood, from impacting the use of public spaces to impacting socio-demography; a neighborhood of single family homes becomes a mixed-use hodgepodge of single-resident apartment dwellings. And the essence of community and tradition that brought many to homestead and rejuvenate older neighborhoods disappears.

Yet my ultimate sympathies lie with the property owner and the right of every man and woman to be lord of their own little real estate castle. Too often new regulations are placed on residential real estate to achieve a perceived public good while placing too onerous a cost on individual property owners. If a community wants to be rezoned from an R-3 or such down to R-1 to prevent increased density, or the community wants to change FARs to limit the size of new or remodel construction to keep a “quaint” “village” feel, more power to them. But if these changes means a property owner can no longer build out the property as they were originally entitled to do under the old rules and this results in a reduction of the property’s value, than some consideration to fair-market compensation needs be given to the original owners. Otherwise these regulatory actions constitute, in my mind, an unfair “taking” of personal property by the community.

Let me share yet another tale from the Luna family archives. Some years ago, my wife and I found ourselves living in a two-bedroom (read: one regular bedroom, one broom-closet bedroom), one-bath house with three kids and a fourth on the way. We wanted to remodel the 1911 stucco bungalow to add a second story with additional beds and baths. By the time we calculated costs, it was half again as much money to add on to the old structure, which had sagging walls, a crumbling foundation, zero in the way of insulation or modern windows (you’d walk out of the house, which was maybe 50 degrees inside, wearing sweaters at 9 a.m. to discover it was 85 outside; reverse that at night). The architects said we’d basically have to completely rebuild the foundation and exterior walls to take the stress of a new second floor. Ultimately, we decided to start new, from the ground up. When we took the plans for the new house to the local planning committee, several of the members expressed concern that we were demolishing a house with classic style and historical significance. One of the panel members waxed on about the beveled-glass-diamond-pane windows in the front of the house and other classical adornments—until I informed her the glass was plain pane, the front door basically painted plywood and the other “ornamentation” near balsa-wood add-ons. The house was one of dozens built slap-dash out of stucco, spit and old board in the area for summer rentals in the beach community; only later did they become permanent dwellings. The only thing Craftsman about it was that it took a craftsman to keep it habitable. We eventually got our plan through the board and today live in a larger home that, with better windows, insulation, new pipes and heating system, has a better environmental footprint than did the old clunker.

That’s my beef with many attempts to turn people’s private property into a public good. Just because a house is old doesn’t mean it is a classic worthy of preservation. It is often cheaper and more environmentally sustaining to go new with green products and technologies than trying to turn an early-20th-century pig’s ear into a 21st-century silk home. Moreover, the cost of preservation must be weighed against other social benefits of redevelopment, such as increasing “inner-burban” densities to reverse suburban sprawl, making homes more affordable to middle and working-class homeowners and the like.

Moreover, it’s been my observation that idea of community “preservation” has often been used as a code word for community exclusion: keeping the right sort of people in and the wrong sort out of neighborhoods. It’s also been my observation that, in an interesting irony, it is often wealthier and politically more conservative neighborhoods that are most actively willing to use the heavy hammer of the state in their own backyards to force compliance with their own views of community on fellow property owners while decrying the power of the state in other aspects of life.

But, then, what is life without its little ironies?

Meanwhile, my empathies lie with Todd Gloria and the council in trying to thread the needle between public good and private rights. Balancing the two is one of the greatest challenges in a democracy, where the many can have a propensity to achieve gains at the expense of the few. A person’s home is her castle. If the community wants to demand that castle come with cedar shingles and box windows, the community should provide something in the way of fair compensation to castle dwellers in return.