Over the past two years, several independent studies and analyses have documented the abysmal levels of public services provided by the county of San Diego.
A recent investigation by voiceofsandiego.org and the Rose Institute found San Diego at the bottom compared to other major counties in the state in the provision of basic social services to the region’s most vulnerable residents.
Others have noted that, until recently, San Diego was the only large county in the state without an organized fire department — something that no doubt hampered the region’s ability to contain and extinguish the 2007 wildfires — and still spends far less than others on regional fire protection.
The response from our Board of Supervisors has generally been to blame the state — both for saddling the county with onerous responsibilities without providing the money necessary to fund them and for failing to deliver additional revenue to expand essential public services such as fire protection.
Other major California counties operate in the same political and fiscal environment, yet they have done a far better job in providing core public services to their residents. So why has San Diego not been able to do the same?
In examining the revenue streams of the largest 12 counties in the state, we found that San Diego simply has far less money to spend and chooses to spend less of what it has. Overall, our county raises almost 25 percent less in revenue than its peers, and yet ends the year with a much larger unspent balance.
The low revenue receipts are not the fault of state government. In total, state and federal grants represent nearly 60 percent of the county’s revenue, making San Diego the most dependent on handouts from higher levels of government among major California counties, with the exception of Fresno. What explains our region’s relative poverty is how we’ve responded to challenging fiscal times over the past several decades. Even as other counties have found new and innovative ways to raise revenue to deliver the services their constituents need, San Diego County continues to collect less than average in all types of revenue.
In other parts of the state, for example, counties have entered into revenue-sharing agreements with local cities, giving county governments a greater share of the sales tax revenues raised within their borders. Other California counties have also adopted new revenue sources — such as utility users’ taxes — and found ways to increase their collections from service charges and user fees. On both counts, San Diego continues to lag significantly behind.
In addition, the region’s already disadvantaged position relative to other parts of the state has been exacerbated by decisions made by elected county officials. Despite San Diego’s low revenue receipts, the county has chosen to save rather than spend a greater portion of its money than its peers. San Diego County ended fiscal year 2010 with $2.2 billion in the bank — equal to more than half of its total annual spending.
Although these unusually large reserves protect the county from sudden fluctuations in revenue and preserve its credit rating, they also represent an explicit determination to forgo providing additional public services in a region where these are already in short supply.
At the end of the day, decisions about how San Diego County government is run — how much money it raises and what this money is spent on — come down to priorities. Our new report should help San Diegans understand the many tradeoffs implicit in the county’s budgetary decisions and provide an opportunity to evaluate whether the decisions made by our elected representatives reflect the values that we share.
Vladimir Kogan is a doctoral student at UCSD’s Department of Political Science and a former voiceofsandiego.org reporter. He is a co-author of a forthcoming book about San Diego politics and its pension crisis. His e-mail address is email@example.com.