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Filner's State of City lists ambitious agenda, warns of financial problems

There was something for everybody in Bob Filner’s first State of the City address Tuesday night.

Businesses got a pledge to streamline red tape and revitalize the port; unions were offered the chance of getting a five-year labor contract that might replace the often fractious year-to-year negotiations; environmentalists got a pledge for a landmark drive toward solar energy; and sports fans received an assurance that the Chargers won’t be leaving town this year.

Despite his ambitious agenda, however, Filner also warned that the city still faces lingering financial problems.

A review of the books over the past several weeks has revealed that despite previous projections of a budgetary surplus, it now appears there may be a deficit as high as $40 million. The deficit may be offset by a one-time payment of $34 million from San Diego Gas & Electric and a $7 million payback of revenues from the county, but Filner said it would be “imprudent” to spend those monies on the county’s recurring costs.

“Some of the seemingly optimistic good news about city finances released earlier this year have been a little tempered by major obligations that have not been fully addressed,” he said. “Despite many service cuts our residents have endured, we still face financial challenges.”

Nevertheless, Filner embarked on a wide-ranging program that included:

* Enter a five-year contract with city workers that will stabilize the budget over the long-term, without the cost of renegotiating it every year.

* Emphasize urban planning that will concentrate on creating pedestrian-friendly communities, with traffic roundabouts and bike paths. To accomplish that goal, he said the redevelopment functions currently performed by city government would be reorganized into a new Department of Healthy, Safe and Livable Neighborhoods. His goal is to present the City Council with a workable plan by this fall.

* Make life easier for small businesses by streamlining permit processing and introducing a fixed and predictable schedule for municipal fees. “People should have the certainty of time and money,” he said.

* Ask the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to focus its regional transportation funds on fast-tracking public transit options.

* Have the Airport Authority explore multimodal transportation links and direct access to Interstate 5.

* Turn the Port of San Diego into an engine of job growth, including rail and road ties that connect the docks to the national transportation system.

* Push to open the expanded Convention Center by the end of this year.

* Open a border affairs office in Tijuana on Feb. 1, in the high-rise headquarters of the Tijuana Economic Development Corp. Filner said he hoped to use the office to work on economic policies on both sides of the border and to market the bi-national region as a target for international investment.

* Make San Diego a capital of renewable energy with a push to install solar facilities on all municipal buildings.

Filner’s speech got good reviews from the packed audience at the Balboa Theater.

Mark Cafferty, head of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp., said he was impressed with Filner’s focus on the ports and employment, noting that Filner specifically mentioned he wanted to work with the Chamber of Commerce and EDC.

“His job plans and what the EDC has been talking about are really not far apart,” Cafferty said.

Jay Powell, former director of the City Heights Community Development Corp., said he was impressed with Filner’s desire to get neighborhoods more directly involved in city issues, particularly infrastructure.

“The flip side of the question is how to equip the people in the neighborhoods to meet that responsibility,” he said.

But Filner’s most crowd-pleasing line may have been his announcement that the Chargers will remain in San Diego for a while. Filner announced that the Chargers have decided they won’t take advantage of their annual chance to get out of their lease, at least for this year.

“Developing a plan (to keep the Chargers) that provides a net benefit for taxpayers is not very easy,” Filner said. “But I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that our Bolts don’t bolt.”

Filner, who has developed a reputation for showing his prickly side, was on his best behavior during Tuesday evening’s event, singling out each of the City Councilmembers for personal praise, such as Kevin Faulconer for his efforts to make city government run “effectively and efficiently” and Scott Sherman as the “voice for small businesses.”

In addition, he bestowed “Living Legend” awards on a number of local philanthropists and community leaders, including Father Joe Carroll, hospital backers Ernest and Evelyn Rady, and former Padres star Tony Gwynn and his wife, Alicia, who “give back to their community every single day.”

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