The Star-News

More options need to be on the table

Sat, Nov 13 2010 12:00 PM Posted By: Steve Castaneda And Patricia Aguilar

Chula Vista voters dealt another blow last week to the city's efforts to fix our ever widening budget gap by rejecting Proposition H, the city's utility tax reauthorization measure, by a whopping 14-point margin. It was a painful reminder of last year, when an overwhelming two-thirds of voters rejected an effort to raise Chula Vista's sales tax. In each case, voters ignored warnings from city leaders of imminent reductions in public safety services. Are voters indifferent to the need for adequately patrolled neighborhoods or responsive fire and emergency medical services? Or, have they just stopped listening?

In the case of the failed sales tax measure, voters who didn't support it had no reason to regret their decision. Why? Because those "unavoidable" cuts in public safety that were threatened never materialized.

In fact, although Chula Vista has the leanest Police Department of any local jurisdiction - 0.97 officers per every 1,000 residents - Chula Vista continues to enjoy low crime rates and the department's neighborhood oriented policing program has never been so vibrant. So it's not surprising that voters have grown fatigued and largely numb to the "support new taxes or we'll lay off cops" approach to selling tax hikes.

However, the combination of the defeat of the sales tax and the utility tax measures will have a real impact on city operations. The only question is, will those impacts affect public safety, or can the budget be balanced by reductions in public spending that will go unnoticed by the public?

In talking with residents, it is clear neighborhoods want to preserve public safety services as well as have the opportunity to visit a library or a park and get there on a road not riddled with potholes. But in this difficult economy taxpayers simply can't afford to pay more, and are demanding that city government live within its means, spend money only on things that clearly benefit the public, run the government in the most efficient manner possible, and explore non-tax ways to generate revenues.

The only avenue to fix the budget mess currently under discussion is to reduce pension costs for existing and future employees, and eliminate future raises included in existing collective bargaining contracts. Without question, shifting the cost of the employees' share of the pension payment back to the employees (taxpayers have paid both the city and the employee portion of the pension bill since 1998) is necessary. But in and of itself it is not enough. Other avenues to a balanced budget must also be evaluated and discussed.

For instance, a hard look needs to be given to such things as the level of executive compensation, further consolidation of city departments, and ending programs that offer no clear value to the public. Another avenue to balance the budget is consideration of means to generate revenue without raising taxes; a couple of examples are leasing surplus city building space and charging for parking. In our view, only a combination of pension reform, other means of budgetary savings, and new, non-tax revenue will assure police and emergency services remain adequately funded and assure our libraries and parks will continue serving our neighborhoods.

Twice now Chula Vista voters have rejected the city's efforts to raise taxes to fund city operations. That doesn't mean they are willing to accept unsafe and unmaintained neighborhoods. They expect city leaders to find ways to fund the services they depend on without new taxes. Pension reform, while necessary, only gets us part of the way there. A more hard-nosed approach to expenditures, as well as innovative approaches to revenue generation are also needed. Now is the time to broaden the budget discussion.

Castaneda is a Chula Vista councilman and Aguilar is a Chula Vista councilwoman-elect.

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