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Sanders sells public projects, pension reform in last State of the City

In his final State of the City address, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders Wednesday night framed 2012 as the year he’ll finish the jobs he’s started.

(Watch Mayor Sanders's speech.)

After spending much of his term as mayor negotiating pension reform and dealing with the city’s structural deficit, Sanders said his last year in office would provide long-term solutions for both issues while securing the futures of high-profile civic projects like a new Chargers stadium, convention center expansion, renovation of Balboa Park’s Plaza de Panama and a new central library.

His speech promoted his mayorship’s successes on pension reform and the deficit, while selling the necessity of completing the city’s major proposed development projects. The Daily Transcript obtained a copy of his remarks before the speech.

“We will be fearless, and we will finish what we’ve started, closing the deal on the civic projects that take San Diego to the next level of greatness,” he said.

The speech, given at the Balboa Theatre, included the announcement that he plans in April to roll out a five-year forecast that would balance the city’s budget into the foreseeable future.

“With the City Council’s support, our structural deficit will finally be solved,” he said, noting that he’s trimmed the city’s work force of more than 1,700 positions since taking office.

On pension reform, which he called the headline issue of government today, Sanders commended public employees and labor leaders for the shared sacrifice and negotiations that will save taxpayers $700 million on retiree health care costs.

“And by the time I leave office, we’ll have put our pension problem to bed once and for all,” he said.

But much of Sanders’s speech was devoted to encouraging momentum on those proposed projects that aren’t yet met with full public support, whether due to lack of funding or opposition to the plans themselves.

“Be assured that our success is real,” he said. “Our pension reforms, the measures we took to rein in retiree health care costs, the elimination of our structural deficit -- those are tangible achievements that will stand for all time. The economic benefits of the convention center expansion, the brilliance of the Plaza de Panama project, the exciting potential of a regional sports complex -- those are real too.”

He asked that citizens show the same support for a convention center expansion as they did in the building of a new central library, which he said was now fully funded without touching the city's general fund and ready to open its doors in 2013.

He commended the Port of San Diego and the hotel industry for their leadership on the convention center project.

“They understand this astute investment will yield a lifetime of revenue, and that we must get it done by 2016 to keep the most lucrative conventions, like Comic-Con, that call San Diego home,” he said.

By adding 25 major conventions a year, a new facility would generate to the general fund $12.7 million annually in new hotel-room taxes, he said. Of that, $9 million would go to neighborhood services, with the rest to bond servicing.

The project would also add 7,000 jobs, he said.

His final push for a new convention center comes as national convention center business has been on the wane, leading some to question the wisdom of such a large public expenditure.

But Sanders said he’s listened to convention professionals who’ve argued that San Diego’s desirable location and weather would generate millions if paired with a larger, state-of-the-art facility.

“As a direct result, our revenues will grow by $300 million over 30 years, money that will improve every one of our neighborhoods,” he said.

He called the Plaza de Panama renovation, which would divert automobile traffic from the Cabrillo Bridge entering Balboa Park to a new below-ground parking structure in the center of the park, an elegant solution to complex problems.

“Better yet, it won’t cost taxpayers a dime,” he said. “An opportunity like this comes once in a lifetime.”

Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) founder Irwin Jacobs has pledged to raise or provide the money for the renovation. Critics have assailed the plan because the new bypass bridge will run through what’s currently natural habitat while adding parking to the heart of the park, rather than displacing it to the outskirts.

Sanders went on to reiterate that he has no plans to be remembered as the mayor who allowed the Chargers to skip town. This will be the year that the city and team strike a deal for a new regional sports complex, he said.

The new stadium will not require new taxes or touch the general fund, and will provide a positive return on taxpayer investment, partly by requiring regional funding.

“Those points are critical to any plan, because this is first and always a business deal,” he said. “We’ll leave behind a tired old stadium, where operations cost millions each year, and gain a new facility that's an economic catalyst."

The complex will anchor a thriving entertainment district that would complete the revitalization of East Village, Sanders said, while also complementing the newly expanded convention center.

San Diego’s burgeoning craft beer movement, fresh off a mention in the travel section of the New York Times, also earned a mention in Sanders’ speech. Craft brewers create jobs and economic development he said, embodying the city’s spirit of innovation.

He also commended a cross-border facility from Otay Mesa to Tijuana’s international airport that will break ground this year. This is one of many binational projects in the pipeline, he said, that will boost both cities’ economies. He thanked Tijuana Mayor Carlos Bustamante for working with him on that and other issues.

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