By James R. Riffel
City News Service
Eight fire engines that had been removed from service would be put back in use, but parks and libraries would be open fewer hours under Mayor Jerry Sanders' proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Ending the fire engine cutbacks, which were rotated throughout different fire stations to save $11.5 million in the current fiscal year, is a top priority of the City Council.
Four engines would be returned to the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department on July 1 — the first day of the next fiscal year — with the rest returning on Jan. 1.
Beginning Sept. 6, weekly recreation center hours would be halved from 40 to 20 and the equivalent of 77 full-time positions would be eliminated, saving $6.5 million. The actual number of employees affected could vary depending on the mix of full-time workers and part-timers who are cut.
Stacey LoMedico, director of the Parks and Recreation Division, said she was previously ordered to identify $11.4 million in spending cuts, which would have resulted in 11 centers being closed entirely.
The mayor's budget proposal "will definitely have an impact, but it is not as bad as it could have been, based on the fact that we had potential closures," LoMedico said.
Under the mayor's proposed budget, branch libraries would be open two days a week, and the equivalent of 77 full-time positions would be cut, saving $7.4 million.
Sanders said library officials would create geographical pairings of branches, so that when one is closed, another one a few miles away would be open.
"These are devastating cuts, especially to the low-income urban neighborhoods I represent,'' said Councilman Todd Gloria, who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee.
Gloria said the cuts to the fire engines this year would be transferred to parks and libraries next year.
The Park & Recreation Department currently has the equivalent of 757 full-time positions, and the libraries have 358.
San Diego's total budget is $2.75 billion, with a $1.1 billion general fund, which is where the money for discretionary spending is held.
Sanders had to close an estimated general fund shortfall of $56.7 million, which grew to $73.2 million when the return of the fire engines and other adjustments were added.
The gap was filled with $35.1 million in one-time changes to revenues and spending, mainly transfers between funds, and $38.1 million in ongoing adjustments to income and expenditures, like the department cutbacks.
The mayor said the budget also does not add to, or take away from, the city's reserves.
"The public expects us to live within our means, and this budget reflects this reality," Sanders said.
The mayor said it was his intention to leave office in December 2012 with the city's budget problems solved, and his spending plan gets them "ever closer'' to succeeding.
The budget for the San Diego Police Department was reduced by $5.5million, including cuts of 20 vacant officer positions.
The SDFRD's allocation increased by $8 million to restore the fire engines.
In all, the budget proposal cuts nearly 250 full-time equivalent positions, bringing the municipal workforce under 10,000 for the first time in recent memory, Sanders said.
Councilman Carl DeMaio was critical of the spending blueprint, saying the mayor used a "meat cleaver" approach to the budget that avoided reductions in wasteful spending.
"There are layers of excessive management that can be eliminated and many areas for the city to use private-public partnerships to cut costs," DeMaio said. "Instead of giving taxpayers the reforms they deserve, this budget takes a meat cleaver to their basic services."
Using the one-time fixes to solve part of the deficit only continues "kicking the can down the road," he said.
But Paul Webster, vice president of public policy for the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, called the budget "a great start" and applauded the mayor and City Council on their "commitment to fiscal responsibility and their attempts to solve San Diego's structural deficit."
Gloria, Councilman Kevin Faulconer and council President Tony Young all lauded a cooperative approach between the City Council and mayor's office in developing the budget.