Monday, September 26, 2011

It's no joke

Am I the only one having trouble figuring out what’s a joke and what’s for real?  You can help me out by taking a quiz.   Consider the following stories from the past week’s news and let me know, which do you think are jokes?  Which are for real?

* Mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher circulated a 9-point plan called San Diego Must Invest in Infrastructure.  He says that it’s “time to turn the page on City Hall and move San Diego into a new era…time to invest in our infrastructure and ensure we lay the foundation for a bright, prosperous future.”  His first step would be to create an infrastructure “strike force.”  

Huh? Our city has amassed a deficit approaching one billion dollars for overdue repairs to streets/ sidewalks/ sewer mains/ water pipes/ libraries/ recreation centers – these are basic infrastructure needs.  And that's not all.  This daunting deficit is dwarfed by our unfunded pension liability, which adds another couple of billions to San Diego's backbreaking financial burden. 

In a cynical maneuver to patch up the city until he is safely out the door, our current Mayor has been borrowing from Peter to pay Paul for day-to-day expenses.  It's like taking a 3rd mortgage on your house to pay for roof repairs and new downspouts.   Fletcher says he’ll do it the same way, but he'll use a strike force to lead the charge.  Is this a rational plan? or a joke?

* Not to be one-upped at the firing line, Mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio came out last week with his Save Our Streets Action Plan, promising to fix our decrepit streets without raising taxes.  What's in his magic potion?  An “infrastructure lock box.”  And “innovation labs.”  

DeMaio has a knack for catchy phrases that capture attention and feed on public anxiety.  But here's a warning: his action plans take aim at a lot more than pensions and potholes.  His ‘innovation labs’ are an experiment in dismembering city government and selling it off, piece by piece.  San Diego is his guinea pig.

I'll give you a hint: it's no joke.  DeMaio works from a step-by-step manual for privatizing city government -- not to save money, not for purposes of efficiency, but to launch a new world order based on private corporate ownership of public services.  Don't walk blindly into one of  his 'lock boxes.'  They're traps.

* Another news item from last week: the small Rhode Island town of Central Falls (whose motto is A city with a bright future) filed a bankruptcy plan to plug a huge budget deficit caused by unfunded pension and retiree health benefit liabilities.  The story says it's one of a handful of U.S. cities and counties staring down the road of fiscal collapse.  

With a structural deficit in the billions, San Diego qualifies as a leader of the pack.  The public gets sporadic glimpses into the extent of our collapse during budget hearings each June, when the hatchet falls on increasing numbers of city services and workers.  In the meantime, in between times, city’s leaders and wannabe leaders are still whistling Dixie.  

* On the other hand, in a refreshing show of practicality and candor, the Chargers attorney Mark Fabiani finally told it like it is to the San Diego press: if we want to keep the Chargers in town San Diegans will have to ante up with a big wad of major league taxes.  Finally, someone who’s not kidding!  Too bad the joke's on us.

* And how’s this for a news item: you can WIN A GUN at the annual National Rifle Association fundraiser, to be held in October at the Scottish Rite in Mission Valley.  “This event raises money for local shooting clinics and events including Wounded Warriors, Women On Target, Boy Scout merit badge shoots, and the extremely successful NRA Shooting Sports Family Fun Camp… the ONLY fundraising dinner where you could win a gun!”  No joke, unfortunately.

* But wait.  Last week’s story on the Voice of America (also reported by the Union-Tribune) puts the NRA to shame: “Gun is Grand Prize in Al-Shabab Children's Contest: Somalia's al-Shabab Islamist group has awarded assault rifles and hand grenades to the winners of a children's Koran recital competition…the first prize winner of the Koran recital contest received an AK-47 rifle and $700, while the second-place contestant won an AK-47 and $500.  It says the third prize winner received two hand grenades and $400.” 

Where does this quick scan of last week's news leave us?  With the disconcerting reminders that San Diego isn't isolated from or immune to problems that beset far-away places and that we oughtn't to pass judgment since we aren't doing such a great job here at home.  

But don't give up yet -- there's a consolation prize for failing this quiz.  We may have little control over far-away places but we DO have the power and ability to choose what grows in our own backyard.   

Yes, we need to elect the right people and reject the wrong ones.  But our “leaders” can't and won’t do it on their own.  That's a fact.  It's up to us.  No joke. 

Here's my number one priority for our own backyard: extricate our city from the crippling financial crisis that hobbles us at every turn.   

Organize and produce a vigorous, rigorous public debate about resolving and surviving our city's budget crisis.  

Throw words like visioning, workshop, brainstorming, politifest into the trash Dare to speak words like insolvency, municipal bankruptcy, defined-benefit pensions.

Let’s get this one done and over with.  Then we can start on the rest of the world.