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After a rough year for San Diego, Mayor Sanders tries to sound hopeful

After a year that handed San Diego massive wildfires, a landslide, an ongoing drought and fiscal challenges that continue from past years, Mayor Jerry Sanders focused much of his third state of the city address on creating a hopeful message for the future.

“We’ve come a long way in the last two years here in San Diego, and tonight, the state of our city is this,” Sanders said from the stage of the newly renovated Balboa Theatre downtown, “the era of decay and neglect is at an end.”

Sanders made several major announcements in his speech, including the formation of a multi-jurisdictional committee to discuss fire prevention and response, a dedication of $70 million to fix the city’s roads and storm drains, the upcoming pursuit of changes to the city’s pension and health care systems, and the convening of a summit of Southern California mayors to lobby the state legislature on water issues.

Sanders also declared his desire to expand the San Diego Convention Center, open a new border crossing to improve the city’s business relationship with Mexico and to finally complete the city’s back audits so it can return to the public bond market.

“The restoration of our credit -– and our good name -– is critical,” Sanders said. “Access to the public bond market will help us finance repairs and upgrades to public facilities at the lowest cost to taxpayers.”

Most of Sanders' speech focused on financial issues and the wildfire recovery effort. There were several salutes to fire rescue workers throughout the night, and Sanders announced that the city is releasing an assessment of its actions during the fires soon.

At one point, Sanders stepped aside and let County Supervisor Ron Roberts explain a multi-jurisdictional committee composed of leaders and fire officials from the county, city of San Diego and other cities around the county. The group will identify high priority needs and how to fund them and release a report by June 30.

“While we welcome the state and federal efforts, it's time for us to take control and improve our capabilities,” Roberts said. “We live in a fire-prone area and we must do everything possible to minimize the loss of life, property damage and the widespread disruption caused by future wildfires.”

Sanders is running for re-election this summer and much of the speech focused on accomplishments his administration has already made in re-organizing the city. When addressing the city’s fiscal situation, he was more guardedly upbeat than he has been in previous state of the city remarks.

Changes to city finance operations have resulted in permanent annual savings of more than $50 million a year, he said, and he plans to ask the City Council to put aside $146 million for under-funded projects in the next budget cycle.

“My priority was to reform city government so we could efficiently and effectively provide basic daily services to our citizens,” Sanders said. “Tonight, I report progress. Not perfection, but measurable progress.”

Councilwoman Donna Frye, who ran against Sanders in 2005 and is frequently opposed to his positions, said some of the mayor’s financial claims didn’t add up.

“I guess I would call it ‘the happy talk speech,’” Frye said. “A couple of concerns I have (are) the failure to provide a comprehensive plan to fund the pension deficit, and I’m very concerned that his plan is to borrow more money to pay for a lot of the projects that were identified.”

Frye also said the city has not been as open and honest under the Sanders administration as the mayor sometimes claims. She pointed to the city’s Development Services Department, which came under fire during the Sunroad Centrum office building scandal last year.

“Generally speaking (the speech) was a lot of verbiage and not a lot of substance,” Frye said.

During his speech, Sanders took aim at San Diego City Attorney Michael Aguirre when he pointed to the losses Aguirre suffered in trying to overturn what he believes are illegal pension benefits that the city granted in 2002 and are now weighing down San Diego’s finances.

“When I first became mayor, I relied on the advice of the city attorney that previously awarded pension benefits could be taken away. I supported his litigation efforts to reverse these benefits,” Sanders said. “The courts have ruled decisively against the city attorney. It is disappointing that we cannot reverse many of our pension benefits, but this is the hand that we’ve been dealt.”

At the conclusion of the speech, while most city officials who were seated on stage next to the mayor remained to mingle, Aguirre left immediately.

Sanders did not get very specific in the changes he wants to make to the city employee pension and health care systems, but he did say he wants to get rid of the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, or DROP program, for current city employees who aren’t yet enrolled. The DROP program allows employees to collect their full monthly pension checks for up to five years while continuing to work and receive their full salaries from the city.

Another matter Sanders highlighted was the city’s water shortage. With recent droughts and other strains on the state’s water supply, Sanders did not call for mandatory cuts in water usage, but asked people to continue to conserve on a voluntary basis. He also announced that he has convened a summit of Southern California mayors to meet and present a unified voice to the state legislature.

“Tonight, I ask you to recommit yourselves to this journey that we began two years ago,” Sander said. “I ask you to stand with me once again at another great moment in our city’s history.”

The state of the city address fell on Sanders’ wife Rana’s 50th birthday. Sanders acknowledged his wife and daughters in his speech; and during City Council President Scott Peters' closing remarks, he led the entire theater in singing "Happy Birthday."

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