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Compromise budget passes council after near stalemate

By JOE BRITTON

City News Service

After a lengthy back-and-forth debate that nearly resulted in a stalemate, the City Council on Monday was able to reach a compromise on Mayor Jerry Sanders’ proposed $2.85 billion budget for the coming fiscal year and voted 5-1 to approve the spending plan.

Approval of the fiscal year 2011 budget, which takes effect July 1, required the support of five members of the City Council. But with Council President Ben Hueso and Councilman Tony Young absent from Monday’s meeting, consensus was difficult to reach. There were more than a half-dozen unsuccessful motions before the budget was approved.

The City Council hung up on what to do with about $3.8 million in unexpected funds and whether to spend $500,000 to study a road extension in Serra Mesa.

Councilwoman Marti Emerald wanted to use the additional funds to restore three of the fire engine companies in San Diego that have been “browned out” as a result of a previous round of budget cuts.

“I believe that public safety is a core service in the city and we have to make an investment in public safety,” she said.

The mayor’s office wanted the funds to be used to restore storm water projects, while Independent Budget Analyst Andrea Tevlin suggested the money be put in an appropriated reserves account to cover unforeseen expenses.

Ultimately, the City Council sided with Tevlin and voted to put the $3.8 million in a reserve account and decide what to do with the funds at a later date. The council also agreed to keep the $500,000 for the road study in the budget.

Councilman Carl DeMaio cast the lone dissenting vote, unsuccessfully insisting on a new pension plan for firefighters, implementation of the voter approved outsourcing program, new government efficiencies and marketing partnerships to fund city lifeguards.

According to City Attorney Jan Goldsmith, the City Council is mandated by San Diego’s charter to approve the annual budget prior to June 15 of every year.

In April, Sanders released his proposed fiscal year 2011 budget that overcame a $28.2 million shortfall. To overcome the deficit, the budget relies on vehicle fleet savings, less spending on supplies and equipment, reduced retiree health care costs and restructuring of a legal settlement related to the past underfunding of the pension system.

The mayor’s spending plan was essentially a revision to an 18-month budget the City Council passed in December to address an earlier $179 million deficit, which led to the elimination of about 500 positions, the rolling brownouts at fire engine companies, cuts to the Police Department’s civilian workforce and reduced library hours.

Sanders was forced to revise down the 18-month budget by $28.2 million due to the ongoing erosion of tax and other revenues. In his subsequent May revise, Sanders identified $3.8 million in unexpected money from a lower annual pension payment and savings from refinancing existing debt.

The budget approved Monday by the City Council now goes back to Sanders, who must decide whether to veto or approve the spending plan.