COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | CHRIS CATE

Filner’s budget doesn’t do enough to protect taxpayers

This week San Diego Mayor Bob Filner released his proposed budget outlining priorities for the city beginning July 1 for fiscal year 2014.

Let us begin by stating the mayor’s budget does make good on some past commitments adopted by the City Council, which are much needed to maintain safe neighborhoods, including increasing police academies and police department staffing.

However, the mayor’s budget does little to address some of the most critical needs of the city, such as continued implementation of voter-approved managed competition and streamlining of city services.

With a new mayor comes a new set of priorities. Former Mayor Jerry Sanders was focused on implementing fiscal reforms to correct past mistakes. Some of these efforts, including managed competition — putting city services out to bid — and implementing pension reform, required a vote of the people.

Managed competition has just started to gain traction, with the first completed competition beating expectations and saving taxpayers more than $1 million. Five more projects are under way and others are awaiting council approval to begin the bidding process.

Like his predecessor, Filner is faced with the challenge of eliminating a sizeable budget deficit while trying to provide basic services taxpayers expect from local government. This is where the similarities between Filner and Sanders begin and end.

The budget proposed by Filner dramatically slows down the city’s efforts to reform the delivery of services started under Sanders. While Filner has committed to completing the five competitions started by the past administration, others ready to move forward are on hold.

Similar streamlining and cost-reduction tools the city has implemented also appear to be shelved. Since 2007, for example, the city has used efficiency studies to generate more than $40 million in recurring annual savings. There is no mention in the mayor’s budget of continuing these efforts beyond completing the studies that have been started.

Filner has been adamant about the need to reinvest in San Diego neighborhoods, but his proposed budget doesn’t match his rhetoric. The start of Filner’s term saw a City Council strongly committed to reinvesting taxpayer dollars to address a pressing neighborhood issue: fixing our crumbling infrastructure.

In 2012, the council adopted a five-year infrastructure funding plan with the goal of increasing funding each year until the city can maintain high-quality streets, roads and buildings. About that time, the council directed Sanders to dedicate $8.3 million in surplus funds toward deferred capital projects this year.

Filner has proposed eliminating this funding. Filner also proposed a $1 million reduction next year to pay for a backlog of projects, in addition to reducing the funds to assess the city’s infrastructure. If approved by the council, this would leave the city $6 million short of where it planned to be a year ago. It would mean fewer San Diegans would see repairs to their roads and streets.

The mayor’s decision to hire nine new employees, at a cost of $3 million, to speed up infrastructure work is puzzling given his decision to eliminate a substantial amount of money to repair city streets, roads and buildings.

Improving the quality of the city’s infrastructure seems unobtainable under the mayor’s budget proposal.

Filner’s proposed Capital Improvement Program budget earmarks $400,000 in general fund dollars for projects, the lowest amount the city has invested in six years and a stark contrast to the $11.5 million spent this year.

It would be easy for our city leaders to point to our budget deficit as the reason to cut funding for our dilapidated streets, sidewalks and buildings. But in stark contrast to years past, there is essentially no commitment from San Diego’s mayor to continue streamlining city government operations to generate the millions of dollars in savings the city needs to reinvest in what every neighborhood so vitally needs: better infrastructure.

Instead, Filner is proposing using one-time revenues — a solution the San Diego County Taxpayers Association adamantly opposes — to close ongoing budget gaps.

The Taxpayers Association urges the San Diego City Council to restore the funding necessary to address needs throughout our city, and we urge Filner to move forward with voter-approved managed competition and the streamlining of city services.

Cate is interim president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.

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