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A Fresh Start for San Diego City Taxpayers

As published in San Diego News Network

by Vince Vasquez

Monday, January 4, 2010

The recessionary turmoil and state tax increases of 2009 were a devastating one-two punch for many San Diego families, leaving few prepared for our unknown financial future. Rather than allow greater harm to befall our economy this year, City Hall leaders must take action today and prioritize the long-term interests of local taxpayers.

To say that the Golden State lost some of its luster last year would be an understatement. New government data finds that California’s workforce shrank dramatically in 2009, as the ranks of the unemployed increased by 716,000 over the last twelve measured months. This sobering trend was compounded by high-stakes budgetary dysfunction in Sacramento, which resulted in residents being gouged for fewer public services. In an effort to close a $42 billion budget deficit, the California State Legislature voted to raise more than $12 billion in new taxes, including hiking sales and income taxes, and the vehicle license fee.

Though no one could reasonably expect state government officials to have anticipated the worldwide financial collapse of late 2008, there is simply no excuse for passing the largest state tax increase in American history. Previous budget cycles saw elected representatives voting to spend nearly every penny of incoming tax revenue, recklessly placing state government operations on paycheck-to-paycheck for short-term political gain. Where was the rainy day budget contingency plan that could have avoided this mess?

The inability (or indifference) of elected state officials to adopt structural
reforms to cap government spending, cut waste and fatten budget reserve funds during more prosperous times has now left Californians to reap a rotten harvest. Rather than duplicate the odious decisions of the state capitol, lawmakers in the City of San Diego must now grapple with their own maturing budget challenges, which similarly pose the spectre of higher fees and taxes for fewer government services.

Taxpayer watchdogs and budget experts have noted that for too long, the City of San Diego has spent more money than it takes in, and the official city financial forecast expects this trend will continue through 2014. The sources of excessive spending come from our ballooning legacy city pension debt and retiree benefits, which have only undergone a light cosmetic make-over since 2004. Failure to aggressively pursue greater structural changes to our pension system gives the impression that excessive city spending is institutional, monolithic, and off-limits for reform. Rather than allow political factions to make their case for solving the problem by levying new storm water and trash fees on everyday residents, taxpayers must loudly make a call to action that puts their interests first in 2010.

City government exists solely to provide the best services at the best value for taxpayers, and significant steps are clearly needed to keep local elected officials accountable to this fact. Placing the city’s checkbook on the Internet can bring sunshine and transparency to an otherwise murky public process. New strategies are also needed to advance innovative budget tools that can keep parks, libraries and recreation centers open indefinitely, such as outsourcing, retiree health care reform, and public-private partnerships. San Diego Councilmember Carl DeMaio is working earnestly to break the City Hall log jam on competition bidding for city services, and will need the support of the voters next year to overcome what is likely to be a bruising campaign to safeguard taxpayer dollars from opposing political designs.

As the Tea Party Movement demonstrated in 2009, an outraged citizenry can effectively mobilize under a single banner to have their voice heard in the public arena, and there’s no limit to what taxpayers can achieve when they’re working towards a common goal. Though advancing a taxpayer agenda at City Hall is sure to be an uphill battle against inertia and political factions, surrendering to the status quo won’t yield the outcome we desire. As Winston Churchill once said, “wars are not won by evacuations.”