Panel backs giving mayor power to cut

By Matthew T. Hall
Staff Writer

June 21, 2007

DOWNTOWN SAN DIEGO – Mayor Jerry Sanders would have the power to cut $155 million from San Diego's $1.1 billion operating budget – 14 percent – without telling the City Council or the public, under a plan backed by a council committee yesterday.

That's more than three times the budget-cutting authority Sanders sought under a proposal scuttled by City Attorney Michael Aguirre in April. Aguirre said that plan would have illegally delegated the council's spending authority.

Council President Scott Peters, Budget and Finance Committee chairwoman Toni Atkins and Councilman Kevin Faulconer embraced the new proposal at the first public hearing for it yesterday. It heads to the full council next month.

Councilwoman Donna Frye opposed the plan, saying it wouldn't have stopped Sanders from cutting a youth swim program that brought San Diego's budget-power ambiguities to the council's attention about nine months ago.

Under the plan, Sanders would have to notify the council in writing if he planned to eliminate any community services or programs in fiscal 2008, which starts July 1. Advance notification would also be required for cuts exceeding:

  • $200,000 in 21 programs that cost up to $2 million;
  • $500,000 in 20 programs that cost $2 million to $5 million;
  • $1 million in 70 programs that cost $5 million to $10 million;
  • $1.5 million in 346 programs that cost more than $10 million.

Julie Dubick, a top Sanders policy aide who helped draft the proposal, told the committee it was based on “a lot of compromise.”

Andrea Tevlin, who worked on the plan as the council's independent budget analyst, said it would force Sanders to notify the council before cutting many services and forge a link between the city's budget and its service levels, one of her main goals.

Tevlin and Peters both said they prefer to view the proposal in that light instead of in terms of how much money Sanders could cut from the city budget.

Frye, however, said she won't support “the mayor's ability to make changes at his whim” or attempts to exclude the public from service-level decisions.

“Many, many service levels can be reduced and we'll never know about it because of the way budgets are done,” she said.

Sanders has sparred with the council for months over the power to cut programs and services after the adoption of an annual city budget. By law, the council sets San Diego's spending plan, but Sanders says he can make cuts to be more efficient and is not obligated to spend all that the council approves.

In September, his decision to cut a youth swim program without informing the council caused a backlash from residents and council members. The program was saved, but the larger dispute has lingered.

The new arrangement is the third attempt this year to clarify the mayor's and council's budget authority, which has been vague since a voter-approved switch to a strong-mayor system of government in January 2006 removed Sanders from the council and gave him broad executive powers once held by a city manager.

The proposal would bar the council from making budget changes without first getting a funding recommendation from the mayor. It would allow the council to consider restoring programs on the chopping block if four council members asked to do so. And it would require the Mayor's Office to give quarterly management reports to the council.

Peters suggested some refinements but said it was a “more precise” proposal than the plan he, Sanders and Councilman Tony Young proposed in March. That plan would have let the mayor unilaterally cut 10 percent, up to $4 million, from each general-fund department budget, for a total of $48.4 million.

“Plus it's only for a year,” Peters said. “If it doesn't work we can always go back to fighting.”

Deputy City Attorney Mark Blake, who helped fashion the proposal, could not definitively say if it would be legal. He said he has “a moderate degree of confidence that this is workable” but added that Aguirre has not blessed it.