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Sanders: Cuts are necessary to keep city stable

Spending cuts enacted to close San Diego’s ongoing budget deficits, made worse by the national recession, were painful but necessary and positioned the city on a strong footing as the decade draws to an end, Mayor Jerry Sanders said tonight in his annual State of the City Address.

“While these cuts were necessary, I don’t expect people to be happy about them,” Sanders said. “I understand that, for many, our financial uncertainty is unnerving. But experience teaches us that true stability begins by accepting reality, and with priorities that reflect bedrock values.”

The speech comes only a month after the San Diego City Council approved an 18-month budget that contained deep spending cuts proposed by Sanders to close a $179-million spending shortfall.

The cuts resulted in about 200 city workers losing their jobs and broad impacts on municipal services.

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

Closing the spending shortfall also meant the trimming of library hours, the removal of fire pits from beaches, fewer vehicle replacements and changes in the days and times of garbage collection.

It was the second time San Diego slashed its spending last year as the recession cut into sales and property tax revenues and led to investment losses on Wall Street.

City officials have cautioned that budget deficits also loom into the future.

Before the recently adopted budget expires, Sanders pledged to present his plan to overcome the city’s structural deficit.

“This structural deficit — the imbalance between the public’s expectations of their city and the revenues that sustain it — was allowed to grow for decades,” he said. “It has deep roots. The notion that it can be toppled with one stroke may be alluring, but we will not be so foolish as to exchange one untenable plan for another.”

He dismissed “extremist views” calling for bankruptcy, the decimation of city services or pension “take-backs.”

“We must not compound our troubles by embracing the false promise of easy answers, or by ignoring hard truths,” Sanders said. “This isn’t a job for salesmen or sloganeers. It isn’t glamorous. It’s work.”

For the third consecutive year, Sanders delivered his speech at the historic Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego.

While much of the address focused on San Diego’s precarious finances, Sanders also touted the potential of several large public works projects including the expansion of the Convention Center, building a new downtown library and the redevelopment of the City Hall complex infrastructure he said would bolster the economy.

The mayor said San Diego risks losing the most lucrative conventions if the Convention Center isn’t expanded.

“Now, some believe the hurdles to expansion are too steep, and we should accept a future with fewer tourists, fewer jobs and less revenue,” he said. “This argument has been made at every step of the Convention Center’s progress. As in the past, it’s a loser. “

Sanders described replacing City Hall and the downtown library as “critical investments in our future,’' but only if they can be completed without tapping into the city’s general fund.

“These projects would greatly enhance the quality of life of future generations, but only if they’re done right and without saddling us with debt,’' the mayor said.

In addition, the debate over whether to build a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers and whether to keep the franchise in town also needs to be resolved “one way or another,”

Sanders said.

He said the current focus is on a stadium in the East Village near Petco Park.

“If there is a deal to be made in which both the taxpayers and the Chargers come out a winner, this is the city that can find it,’' Sanders said, adding that if a deal is struck it could go before voters as early as 2012.

Sanders heralded the emergence of a clean technology sector in San Diego and its potential to create jobs.

“I am using my office, and its resources, to invest in an emerging pillar of our economy,’' he said. “And I will not rest until San Diego is synonymous with clean technology.”

The mayor decried Sacramento’s efforts to raid local funds to balance the state’s budget and promoted a statewide ballot initiative that would block the practice.

“No actions we take to build our future are secure so long as Sacramento has the power to balance its budget by stealing form ours,’' Sanders said.

He called for the realization of the voter-approved managed competition program, which allows private companies to compete for jobs now performed by city workers.

“This competition will save the city millions of dollars we can put to use in our neighborhoods,” Sanders said.

“That’s what the voters told us to do three years ago,’' he said. “There’s no excuse for not moving forward.’'

Despite difficult times, Sanders concluded his speech by expressing optimism about the city’s future, saying San Diego “cannot be held back by a bad economy, but only by its own fear and failure to act.”

“As our nation recovers from this brutal recession, some cities will lag behind and others will lead the way,’' he said. “The choice is ours. But that choice is being made now, when, for some, the outlook is still bleak and much seems out of our control.”

“We are indebted to the foresight and optimism of the San Diegans who preceded us,” Sanders said. “And to people like those here tonight, with the courage to look past their own problems to the promise of the future.’'

“By following their examples, San Diego is building momentum for the next decade and beyond, a time in history in which this dynamic city is destined to lead the way.

— By Joe Britton