Monday, March 7, 2011

When the sun shines in San Diego

Let's start on a positive note: when the sun shines in San Diego life feels beautiful.  It’s a fact, a gift of nature, our claim to fame.  We’re a mecca for visitors from far and wide.  Even down-home residents experience a sense of awe over our flawless skies/breezes/sunsets…each time feels like the first time.  It's a blessing.  But it’s not the whole picture.

Here's an equally striking fact about our city: San Diego is flat broke.  Natural blessings notwithstanding, our city cannot cover it’s annual expenses, its normal, everyday bills -- not without jacked-up fees, sharply-reduced city services, and whichever additional measures the Mayor can come up with to save a million here, a million there.

How broke are we?  The answer depends on who's running the numbers. The Mayor admits to being $46.5 million in the red for the next fiscal year...okay, make it $57M.  Hold on, says the city’s budget analyst, the deficit is more like $96M.  Now wait a sec, says a stickler-for-details city council member, I’m calling it at $176M.
The public is obviously not getting the whole story.

What we do know for certain is that San Diego’s finances are in worse shape than ever before.  Despite worker layoffs, neglected streets, fire station brownouts, burnt-out street lights, repeated cuts in city services (they call it belt-tightening) the city’s financial sinkhole has grown wider and deeper.
What we also know is that we're required by law to pass a balanced budget for fiscal year 2012 and the deadline for getting it done is June.
What we don't know is whether there are enough notches left on the city’s belt to squeeze this one out.  And what we don't know is what kind of starvation measures will be required when the next fiscal year roles around.  Or the one after. And so on.
This should begin to give you an idea of how broke we are.

At this point you might ask: If we’re in such terrible financial straits, surely the Mayor and other city leaders have a comprehensive plan to tackle the financial collapse of our city, right?  The answer is NO.
This astounding fact warrants repeating: there is NO comprehensive plan to address our city's crippling, intractable, ballooning, long-range financial crisis. 
Instead of an honest plan, the city’s budget gets massaged and manipulated through money juggling and shell games.  It's a San Diego tradition that city officials persist in perpetuating, whether or not it brings the house down.   
Tradition is a more respectable word than incompetence. Or for that matter, corruption....

Another quirky tradition among San Diego's elite is a gentleman's agreement to remain mute.  It appears to be a unique San Diego phenomenon.
Our city has a wealth of politically-savvy law firms and bankers. There are business-savvy entrepreneurs, in and out of the Chamber of Commerce. We've got academically-savvy public policy experts, business schools, and institutes. And experienced retired politicians, unions, and do-good organizations.
But the only consistent and vocal pressure to set things right and to remedy glaring breaches of the public trust comes from a handful of stalwart citizen gadflies -- and they're getting mighty tired and hoarse and old.  They need reinforcements.

Of course we know that the city's financial debacle is not the only issue needing attention.  In fact, people are debating so many hot-ticket issues nowadays that we risk succumbing to an ailment called (to coin a phrase) mass-attention-deficit disorder.  It causes people to run in circles and has the opposite effect of mass hysteria, which would at least focus attention to the rampaging elephant in the room.

So let's try this for a start: let’s take a quick break from the nonstop barrage of hot-ticket items like supersized Walmarts, cruise ship terminals, $4.1B in redevelopment projects, community gardens, and monkey business to change the way our city schools are governed.
Let’s put a cork in cheerleader frenzies over flashy proposals for downtown trophy projects.
Let's put these hot-ticket items on a sidebar* for now so they won’t get lost in the shuffle while we turn our attention to the hottest-ticket item of them all:

Preventing a city that is broke from becoming a terminally broken city.