After the speech, Mayor Jerry Sanders’ staffers joked about unfurling a Mission Accomplished banner or inviting the Navy. Their boss had just announced he had delivered on the most significant promise he made when taking office more than six years ago.

The city’s decade-long budget crisis, Sanders said, has ended.

“It’s over as of today,” Sanders said at a Thursday press conference outside his office. “I’m declaring. I’ll decree.”

For each of the past 10 years, the city of San Diego has faced an unfortunate reality: The amount of money it planned to collect in taxes didn’t match the amount it needed to spend. For each of the past 10 years, the city has dug into the equivalent of its couch cushions to find piles of money to paper over the deficit and has been forced to curtail services to the public.

In next year’s budget, the last in his tenure, Sanders declared San Diego won’t need gimmicks any longer. And to double down on that promise, he announced Thursday he was restoring some of the worst cuts the city has had to make. Branch libraries and recreation centers will be open longer. More cops will be on the street.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

“I don’t know that I thought I was going to see this day,” the mayor said. “It’s one of those where you’re almost reluctant to say anything now because we’ve been under the cloud for so long.”

Sanders was elected at a time of fiscal calamity, when a pension scandal and other shady dealings brought numerous criminal and civil investigations. Those clouds have long since dissipated. A crippling, years-long recession during the meat of the mayor’s second term added financial pressure. A tax increase the mayor backed failed. Sanders reached zero despite these hurdles.

But the meaning of Sanders’ victory, though, isn’t as clear. The mayor’s promises to transform how the city did business haven’t been realized. His budget solutions have relied more on attrition than reorganization. Reforms to pensions and other retirement benefits have focused on new employees and long-term debts, not the massive, budget-strangling bills owed to retirees and current workers. The annual pension payment remains on a course to approach $350 million, a sum unthinkable when Sanders first was elected.

So perhaps it was fitting that what sparked Sanders’ announcement Thursday wasn’t anything of his own doing. Sales tax and hotel-room tax receipts are coming in better than the city expected. New revenues saved the day.

Remember Sanders’ announcement is, by definition, a paper victory. That’s what budgets are. And the 2,013 pages that comprise San Diego’s budget don’t make the costs of Thursday’s victory clear.

Even with the restoration of library hours, some branches will have their doors open a third less than they did a decade ago.

Streets and other crumbling infrastructure face a bleaker situation. The city needs more than $100 million each year to keep its roads, storm drains and buildings from further degrading. Sanders wants to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars, pushing debts onto future generations. But that still won’t be enough money to prevent further decay.

Sanders said at the press conference that the budget was balanced despite the infrastructure deficit because he’s included loan payments in his financial projections.

“We can declare victory because we have a bonding program that we’ve set out,” he said.

Vlad Kogan, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, argued Sanders’ successes comes with the same caveats as his predecessors. Former mayors Susan Golding and Dick Murphy balanced the budget by shorting the pension fund. Sanders has shorted street repairs, instead.

“The mayor’s solution is no different and no better than politics as usual in the city,” Kogan said.

The costs of victory for services besides streets and libraries are less clear.

Sanders used to provide more than 600 ways to evaluate the city’s progress over time, from tree trimming to pothole patching. But once the harshest of the cuts came, he stopped tracking many services. Residents have no consistent way to understand how a decade of deficits have reduced what their city provides them, a recent report from the independent budget analyst said.

Still, there’s no doubt that those who likely will be around longer than Sanders will use Thursday’s news to change the financial conversation in San Diego. At the press conference, City Council President Tony Young and Councilman Todd Gloria, two generally reliable Sanders allies, talked the mayor’s language of victory. Even if they sometimes spoke bureaucratic-ese.

“It is clear that we’ll no longer have the structural budget deficit problem but instead we’ll have a priority spending challenge,” Young said.

“Our work is not over, but this difficult period in our city’s history is,” Gloria said.

Young, who will serve through 2014, and Gloria, who faces no strong opposition in his re-election bid this year, both talked about spending more money on libraries and recreation centers. With so many needs, the city’s financial problems aren’t going away.

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego City Hall, the 2012 mayor’s race and big building projects. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

Follow @voiceofsandiego

Like VOSD on Facebook.

    This article relates to: Government, News

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

    36 comments
    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    This declaration would be much more credible coming from the city's Independent Budget Analyst's office. I'd wait to hear what they have to say before breaking out the Mission Accomplished banners.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood

    This declaration would be much more credible coming from the city's Independent Budget Analyst's office. I'd wait to hear what they have to say before breaking out the Mission Accomplished banners.

    joseph olivas
    joseph olivas subscriber

    Jerry, hope you are tied down, because you are so full of hot air!

    josepho858
    josepho858

    Jerry, hope you are tied down, because you are so full of hot air!

    Eva Vargas
    Eva Vargas subscriber

    AND the more you toot this ridiculous horn, the more we'll HOLLER!!

    evavrgs
    evavrgs

    AND the more you toot this ridiculous horn, the more we'll HOLLER!!

    joe vargo
    joe vargo subscriber

    Jerry Sanders licks his finger, to see which way the wind is blowing. John Colemon would be proud.

    joev
    joev

    Jerry Sanders licks his finger, to see which way the wind is blowing. John Colemon would be proud.

    Augmented Ballot
    Augmented Ballot subscriber

    Mr. Sheffler, that sounds reasonable. Where would you cut first? Let's start easy with cuts in the low, single-digit $millions before addressing cuts in the tens and hundreds of $millions/yr. Looking forward to your stout guidance.

    Augmented Ballot
    Augmented Ballot

    Mr. Sheffler, that sounds reasonable. Where would you cut first? Let's start easy with cuts in the low, single-digit $millions before addressing cuts in the tens and hundreds of $millions/yr. Looking forward to your stout guidance.

    Bob Gardner
    Bob Gardner subscriber

    With statements like these from politicians it is no wonder they are held in such low regard and so many people are totally disillusioned with our government at all levels.

    rgardne70
    rgardne70

    With statements like these from politicians it is no wonder they are held in such low regard and so many people are totally disillusioned with our government at all levels.

    Bill Sheffler
    Bill Sheffler subscribermember

    the structural deficit came about because politicos were not willing to prioritize spending. The "priority spending challenge" that Young calls out is what laypeople would call "making the tough decisions" or "living within one's income"

    WmJSheffler
    WmJSheffler

    the structural deficit came about because politicos were not willing to prioritize spending. The "priority spending challenge" that Young calls out is what laypeople would call "making the tough decisions" or "living within one's income"

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Got my tires rotated today, and the mechanic said I needed new ones. "Still off-roading in Baja?" he asked. "Nah, I replied, "Just driving local streets."

    toulon
    toulon

    Got my tires rotated today, and the mechanic said I needed new ones. "Still off-roading in Baja?" he asked. "Nah, I replied, "Just driving local streets."

    Mary Davis
    Mary Davis subscriber

    NOTE: It will also be interesting to see what role Jerry "private citizen" takes on in the days leading to the vote on the CPR.

    vor73
    vor73

    NOTE: It will also be interesting to see what role Jerry "private citizen" takes on in the days leading to the vote on the CPR.

    David Hall
    David Hall subscriber

    Perhaps he can now declare a truce with his war on city employees, stop the phony managed competitions, and halt the outsourcing of information technology to international for-profit corporations at local workers expense. Or perhaps the city council will come to their senses and do it for him.

    sdguy
    sdguy

    Perhaps he can now declare a truce with his war on city employees, stop the phony managed competitions, and halt the outsourcing of information technology to international for-profit corporations at local workers expense. Or perhaps the city council will come to their senses and do it for him.

    Will Dawson
    Will Dawson subscriber

    He also sounds as if he has lost his mind.

    Sandawg
    Sandawg

    He also sounds as if he has lost his mind.

    Omar Passons
    Omar Passons subscribermember

    o set out infrastructure repairs to achieve a bond amount for which the debt service would allow a structural balance. The policy issues underlying that decision are important. As Mayoral Candidate Nathan Fletcher has mentioned, there might be some opportunity in selling or re-purposing some of our major assets, not just in revenue but in the maintenance cost saving. If it costs $5MM to repair the Sports Arena and the land is sold for XX, we benefit both from the revenue and from clearing that maintenance obligation. So there are some options. At this point I'll take a cautiously optimistic approach to the Mayor's announcement and hope for more concrete details soon.

    omarpassons
    omarpassons

    o set out infrastructure repairs to achieve a bond amount for which the debt service would allow a structural balance. The policy issues underlying that decision are important. As Mayoral Candidate Nathan Fletcher has mentioned, there might be some opportunity in selling or re-purposing some of our major assets, not just in revenue but in the maintenance cost saving. If it costs $5MM to repair the Sports Arena and the land is sold for XX, we benefit both from the revenue and from clearing that maintenance obligation. So there are some options. At this point I'll take a cautiously optimistic approach to the Mayor's announcement and hope for more concrete details soon.

    Bob Jones
    Bob Jones subscriber

    There is HOGWASH, then there is CONCENTRATED HOGWASH, but this announcement is HOGWASH in its' most un-purified ODIFEROUS form.

    rwj5125
    rwj5125

    There is HOGWASH, then there is CONCENTRATED HOGWASH, but this announcement is HOGWASH in its' most un-purified ODIFEROUS form.

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    If there are actually some monies available to use, save, save save. To take this small amount of money and spend it to make taxpayers happy is the type of response that got us in a financial bind in the first place. Now is the time to put funds in reserve accounts or to pay down debt. This is what a knowledgeable and responsible Mayor would do.

    elmerew
    elmerew

    If there are actually some monies available to use, save, save save. To take this small amount of money and spend it to make taxpayers happy is the type of response that got us in a financial bind in the first place. Now is the time to put funds in reserve accounts or to pay down debt. This is what a knowledgeable and responsible Mayor would do.

    Michael Aguirre
    Michael Aguirre subscriber

    The Mayor's sad and lamentable service was built on telling people they could solve their problems without any real sacrifices. All the showy press conferences, and all the self awarded victory trophies cannot change the reality of his failure to serve the people of San Diego.

    MichaelAguirre
    MichaelAguirre

    The Mayor's sad and lamentable service was built on telling people they could solve their problems without any real sacrifices. All the showy press conferences, and all the self awarded victory trophies cannot change the reality of his failure to serve the people of San Diego.

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    Nice to hear that, Jerry. Unfortunately, no one believes you.

    aardvark6
    aardvark6

    Nice to hear that, Jerry. Unfortunately, no one believes you.