Politics Report: The Mayor's Choice

Politics

Politics Report: The Mayor's Choice

The pension and the police budget, explained. The People’s Ordinance is back and more on the city’s finances.

San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit and Mayor Todd Gloria appear at a press conference following a deadly crash. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This week San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe reiterated her call for her colleagues and the mayor to cut the budget of the San Diego Police Department.

“It’s very clear we need to look at reallocating some of the funding and investing more in our communities,” she said in a Council meeting (helpfully clipped by KPBS’s Andrew Bowen).

Earlier this week, Andrew Keatts gathered up some reporting about this potentially volatile issue and how a year after the Council found itself overwhelmed with requests to cut the police budget, it is going to consider the mayor’s proposed 3.2 percent increase – or $19 million hike.

The mayor’s team and the city’s finance department leaders took a few minutes this week to explain to us why they say it is out of their hands.

The basics: The proposed budget for the police department includes a $23 million increase but a $4 million decrease in overtime – thus the $19 million overall increase.

Almost all of that is in the required contribution the city must make to its pension system. Yes, San Diego politics will always somehow find a way back to pensions. Pensions and Mark Fabiani.

Nick Serrano, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, even clapped back at a critic who accused the mayor of giving more money to the police department while making cuts elsewhere.

“Because the City has a pension obligation we have to fulfill. The increase to the police budget is the City’s pension payment — it’s not a service level increase. Nice try,” Serrano wrote on Twitter.

The pension spike: This year, the city is grappling with a $49.3 million increase in its pension payment. To the extent pensions matter as a civic issue it’s in this: the payments. That amount of money can pay for a lot of things – parks, rec centers, libraries, firefighters and cops, etc.

About $36.8 million of the increase is tapping the city’s general fund, and police make up 42 percent of the general fund. Here’s how pension increases have affected the police department’s budget over the last five years:

“The increases to the police department budget are for expenses that are not in direct control of the police department,” said Adrian del Rio, the assistant director of the department of finance. Not only were they in pension costs but in fleet replacement costs, for all the department’s vehicles and energy water and rent, etc.

The clear message is: We would love to have a conversation about cutting the budget of the police department but our hands are tied. In bureaucrat speak: These are non-discretionary.

But are they? The police, like every city department, is mostly a group of employees. The police have jobs, with pay and benefits.

Was the mayor implying he would consider pay or benefit cuts to the police? No, his team assured the Politics Report. They would not support cutting, even over the long term, police officer pay and benefits.

So then the only thing left is actual jobs. The mayor still did have discretion to propose a decrease to the police department’s budget: He could suggest major layoffs. To wipe away $19 million more in spending, that would be 150 or more police officer jobs.

No way.

“You are never going to see the mayor slashing the police department and risking public safety,” said Jessica Lawrence, the mayor’s director of policy.

Bottom line: While it is true the police department is facing many non-discretionary increases in costs, the mayor is making a choice – using his discretion, you may say – to continue to support the benefits and pay of police officers and avoid layoffs in the department.

Likewise, if Montgomery Steppe and others want to “reallocate some of the funding” in the police department budget, there aren’t many ways to do it without laying off officers.

Look, Someone’s Talking About the People’s Ordinance Again

Lisa Halverstadt moderated a discussion this week about the city budget with various people who will have influence on it. We recommend watching. She also pulled out one part where Councilman Sean Elo-Rivera suggested the city change or address the People’s Ordinance.

The law in general requires the city to pick up trash set out on the street. In practice, it means many single-family homes pay no special fee for trash pickup but many residents of apartment and condo complexes have to pay private companies to come get their trash. Many other cities have special fees for trash pickup.

The Politics Report has seen this come up a lot over the last 17 years. Like Proposition 13 at the state, it’s just this kind of defining aspect of public policy that is always attacked or misunderstood.

But people on the left and right have recognized the obvious inequity involved. Some people, who tend to be richer, don’t pay a special fee for trash collection and others, who tend to have much less wealth, pay special fees for trash collection.

In 2015, the Taxpayers Association, during the brief tenure of then CEO Mark Leslie, recommended the city change it.

“We see the People’s Ordinance as something that creates a subsidy. There’s never been a more appropriate time to remedy a situation that causes inequity,” Leslie said.

The ways to change it: There are conservative and collective interest ways of resolving the inequity. Former City Attorney Jan Goldsmith once suggested the city could simply stop collecting trash. And everyone could pay a private company to come, like many multifamily buildings do.

That would save the city millions, but hundreds of union jobs at the city would be shed.

On the other side, more collective-minded proponents have suggested everyone should pay a fee and the city should compete with private companies to serve multi-family residences too.

Most lawyers have decided a vote of the people would have to occur to change the law but there are some theories that outcomes could be changed without a vote of the people.

Related: We made public the video of the budget event. Maya Srikrishnan has a budget primer here, too.

Related II: It’s 10 years old now but former VOSD star Liam Dillon did a classic episode of San Diego Explained on the People’s Ordinance. He and NBC 7’s Catherine Garcia went to an actual hog farm.

State’s Surplus Land Act Fix Wouldn’t Help Sports Arena (at Least Not Yet)

State legislators are weighing a bill that could alleviate some problems cities have encountered from a law that requires them to offer public land to affordable housing developers before they pursue their own projects on it.

The bill, SB 51, appears to help Chula Vista, which is pursuing a significant project around an MTS trolley station. But, as written, it does not appear to address recent changes that have imperiled San Diego’s attempt to redevelop the area under and around its aging Sports Arena. MTS last year took steps to make sure a handful of its projects weren’t threatened by a legal change it saw coming.

The state has for years been subject to the Surplus Lands Act, requiring public agencies to make land available to other public agencies before it sold the land to private developers. In 2019, a bill by San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting strengthened the law to make the land available not just to affordable housing developers, but also to extend the opportunity when public agencies were entering into long-term leases to redevelop property, not just when they tried to sell it off.

The new bill, if passed, would give some leeway to cities on some projects they might have already been pursuing when the bill passed.

Specifically, if a city had already issued a request for bids from private developers on a property prior to October 2019, and their project includes more than 100 total homes with 25 percent reserved for residents with low incomes, that project won’t need to go through the process of offering the whole thing up to affordable housing developers. But the city needs to ink a deal with a developer before the end of 2024.

That new requirement could help Chula Vista, which is looking to build out property it owns around the E Street trolley station.

San Diego though is still in a holding pattern with its Sports Arena project. Officials have said they’ll continue to work with state officials to see if they can win an exemption for the project, which could include up to 2,000 homes. In the meantime, mum’s the word on negotiations between the city and Brookfield Properties, the developer it selected for the project.

About that Grand Central Station: The state law is a non-issue a few hundred yards away, because it’s the federal government looking to initiate a redevelopment of its so-called NAVWAR campus in Old Town. SANDAG has leapt at that opportunity, and as the Union-Tribune reported this week, is marching forward with its plan to build a hub for its new transit system – complete with a connection to the nearby airport – in the area.

It would subsidize the creation of the transit hub by with market-rate development on top of and around the project. SANDAG would also have to build a new NAVWAR headquarters there or somewhere else.

What shops would you expect to see in Grand Central San Diego? Would it be really expensive like in the airport or more of a mall situation? Send your feedback and ideas for local public policy to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org and andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org. 

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