We Have Mortgaged Our Future

— Michelangelo, no. Mundane, yes. Although there is no money in the till, most San Diego politicians still talk about prodigious projects as if they were a painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, rather than slapping a new coat of paint on a city-owned eyesore.

On the other hand, when it comes to cutting spending, the fiscally threadbare city takes a minimalist approach: tiny little brushstrokes, but with Picasso-sized publicity. For example, the city finally wants to examine the expense accounts of officials of the Regional Economic Development Corporation and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Good. But it would be vastly better to cut all taxpayer support of the development corporation, a truly otiose bureaucracy, and most of the government subsidy of ConVis, which should be able to exist mainly on funds from the hospitality industry.

Some local pols are still touting a downtown library, a new Chargers stadium, a huge underground-parking facility for the zoo, energy self-sufficiency projects, toilet-to-tap (yet again, under the name "reservoir augmentation"), and a new airport, among other grandiose plans. Some of those would be highly worthy projects, if there were money. What's needed to solve some of those needs is creativity -- and not creative accounting, which is used to paper over the massive city employee pension and healthcare liabilities, and toss tapestries over other dung heaps.

The cupboard is bare. The pension system must be funded. The state is picking local governments' pockets. But the city is crippled by massive past underfunding of infrastructure and deferring of equipment maintenance.

Michelangelo, take your palette and paintbrush and scram, at least for now, and take the mayor, all but one of the councilmembers, and most administrative staffers with you. A financially ailing city has to prioritize.

"Because of a lack of planning and priorities, we have spent down part of our future," says councilmember Donna Frye. "We have to look at things that bother people on a daily basis: sidewalks, streets, streetlights, traffic improvements, tree trimming, picking up trash along city streets -- the basic cleanliness of our community. We need to upgrade neighborhood parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, beaches, rest rooms at parks and beaches and downtown. Parking is a major problem. Public buildings have to be accessible to people with disabilities, as well as kids and moms with strollers."

Police, fire, and lifeguard facilities need maintenance, says Frye. "But the way budgets are set up, they don't include the money for maintenance and having adequate personnel for them," she says. There is a crying need for green space and canyon preservation, "but what happens often is that the city will have a chance to acquire open land, it will be offered, but the city will say it doesn't have the money to acquire or maintain it."

And there are endless quality-of-life issues. "There hasn't been much done to protect groundwater. We haven't kept up with wetlands restoration and protection. There are major coastal issues," says Frye.

"We certainly should be spending money on infrastructure," says Jim Mills, former president pro tem of the California Senate. "There is construction everywhere downtown. Sewers are going to fail. Is anybody going to do anything about it beforehand? The likelihood is that the city's position will be 'wait until something happens, and if there is a problem, stick a Band-Aid on it.' "

There are rumors that the military will give up Miramar. Once again, there are whispers of building an airport there. "What great city has tried to put an airport in the middle of a community? It's ludicrous -- insane," says former councilmember Bruce Henderson. If Miramar becomes available -- and so far that's just latrine rumor -- he would consider putting an additional University of California-San Diego campus there, along with a science park and large open space with additions to Mission Trails.

Instead of pursuing a repugnant scheme such as toilet-to-tap, "The focus should be on how we preserve water," says Henderson. "We lose a third of our potable water to inefficient landscape irrigation. That doesn't mean we can't have green lawns. The system should be more efficiently designed."

"The more that is spent on corporate welfare, the less is available for essential public services -- police and water, library, sewer, transportation," says Steve Erie, professor of political science and director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program at UCSD.

Unlike Henderson, Erie says tax-and-fee increases may be necessary. "Tax is a four-letter word in San Diego. But we are undertaxed. There is a sort of conservative populism, but we've been able to get away on the cheap for years," says Erie. "There is some support in the city for increased fees or taxes to pay for firefighting services, for example, but very few politicians outside of Donna Frye will stand up and tell the truth." If consumers had to pay fees or taxes for firefighting, they would probably recover the money in lower insurance costs, says Erie. "San Diego is mortgaging its future."

Henderson says the fat -- corporate-welfare hogs -- can be cut out of the budget. He would slash or eliminate subsidies to groups such as the Regional Economic Development Corp. and ConVis, which got $12.5 million in the last budget. He would also abolish the Centre City Development Corp., pay off its bonds, and swear off any more government-sponsored downtown development. "Is there any reason to believe that downtown is blighted?" he asks.

The city should try to sell the ballpark, he says, although there may not be buyers who would pay much. (If stadiums were profitable, owners would build them instead of scamming their home cities.) Henderson would also put the convention center up for sale -- although the glut of convention space in the West might turn off any buyers. He says the center costs the city $30 million a year -- $26 million for debt service and depreciation, and $4 million for maintenance, with inadequate offsetting revenue coming in. (There is a ripple effect, although it's overstated.)

The matter of a downtown library cries out for creative solutions. One of the reasons Mills supported Mayor Dick Murphy is that he said he would reexamine the library and pro-sports subsidies. He didn't follow through, and Mills is disenchanted. "Some say we need a new downtown library because the roof leaks and the plumbing doesn't work sufficiently. I say fix the roof and the plumbing," says Mills.

The location of the proposed downtown library in the ballpark district was "deplorable, chosen only because it adds value to property given to [Padres majority owner] John Moores," says Mills. Mills would repair the current downtown library. He would choose a lower-priced location, probably not downtown, for a facility that would warehouse books and serve as an electronic nerve center for the branches, which are badly in need of upgrading and adequate staffing.

Henderson would also repair the current downtown library and use it for warehousing books and equipment. The branches are key. "Increasingly, this is a society in which the vast majority of people have access to instant information and communication -- technologies that are denied to the rest. Those who don't have such access should get it through a library close enough that they can reach it by walking," he says.

And speaking of communication, "We have to lay out a true picture to the public of what can be funded and what can't be funded, and have a real public discussion," says Frye.

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