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City’s biggest challenge in 2009 was budget cuts

By JOE BRITTON

City News Service

Dogged by another year of recession-fueled declines in tax revenues and mounting investment losses, San Diego was forced to twice slash its spending in 2009, adopting budgets that resulted in the elimination of hundreds of city jobs and the continued erosion of municipal services.

In June, the City Council overcame an $83 million budget deficit by imposing sizable reductions in employee pay and benefits, enacting new fees and tapping into the city’s reserves.

Five months later, Mayor Jerry Sanders announced that revenue projections for San Diego would again fall short. His plan to close a $179 million mid-year budget deficit called for layoffs and deep cuts to municipal services.

The council authorized Sanders’ 18-month budget proposal in December, resulting in the elimination of about 500 positions, about 200 of which are now filled.

Significant cuts were made to public safety for the first time in recent years.

Police canine teams will be reduced, equestrian patrols in Balboa Park eliminated, the number of fire engine companies will be trimmed through “rolling blackouts,” wintertime lifeguard service will be cut at Torrey Pines, and dozens of civilian public safety support staff will lose their jobs.

Elsewhere, library hours will be cut, beach fire pits removed, maintenance will be reduced at sports fields and beaches, and there will be changes in the days and times of garbage collection in San Diego.

Sanders has cautioned that budget deficits will also loom over the city in the next several years.

Despite the bleak economic times, San Diego pressed ahead with several large municipal projects in 2009.

Plans were introduced to expand the San Diego Convention Center, replace the City Hall complex and build a Central Library. The mayor also engaged in talks with the San Diego Chargers to possibly build a football stadium in the East Village.

Sanders pledged at a luncheon in September that he won’t support moving ahead with any of the projects if it requires the use of money from the city’s general fund, but he also chided the “defeatists who think the only response to a weak economy is to abandon our aspirations.”

Water was also one of the most pressing issues that faced the city in 2009.

After years of drought, cuts to the amount of water that can be pumped into the region and failed voluntary conservation measures, the City Council in June imposed mandatory water-use restrictions. The regulations require residents to water their lawns and landscaping only three days a week, on designated days and during specific times.

Overall, San Diego residents cut their water use by about 13 percent since the city imposed the mandatory restrictions, according to statistics from the mayor’s office.

The year also brought a potential resolution to the long-running debate over the presence of the seals at the Children’s Pool in La Jolla.

In February, the City Council voted to ask Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, to draft a bill to amend a 1931 trust, which designated the beach as a bathing area for children, to also allow for a marine mammal habitat. The state Legislature quickly adopted the bill and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law.

Citing the law, a judge in November ruled that the colony of harbor seals that took over the beach would be allowed to stay, potentially ending years of legal dispute.

Like many other California cities, San Diego began efforts in 2009 to regulate the proliferation of medical marijuana dispensaries.

The City Council formed an 11-member task force in September to look at medical marijuana in the city. After meeting for only three months, the panel proposed sweeping regulations.

If approved by the City Council, medical marijuana dispensaries would be barred from being within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, libraries and areas frequented by children. Dispensaries would also be barred from being 500 feet of each other, and they would have to hire security, limit operating hours and obtain permits.

The year also brought the appointment of a new San Diego Fire-Rescue Department chief. Javier Mainar, who was previously the city’s assistant fire chief, was chosen by Sanders after a national search to replace retiring Tracy Jarman. Mainar has 29 years with the department and was the incident commander during the devastating 2007 wildfires.