Virtual News Conference: A Budget Blueprint for San Diego

April 30, 2020

Tough times create an opportunity for positive change.  

With municipal revenues in free fall and the effects of COVID-19 still unfolding, the city of San Diego must prepare to operate in new ways and lead an effort to build an inclusive economic recovery.  This will require leadership willing to think “outside the box”—leadership that is able to re-shape the way our city serves residents—by being smarter, more efficient, more transparent, more accountable and more equitable.

This is not the time to cut back on hours at our libraries, our park and recreation centers and other neighborhood programs when our residents need these services the most.  On the other hand, the city has allowed a bloated middle management – including layer upon layer of “communications specialists” – to drain resources from those city employees who actually deliver services to our residents.

In the new San Diego, the needs of residents will come first.

I’m optimistic about San Diego’s future.  Our biotech industry has been on the forefront of making test kits and ventilators and developing vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.  Many of our tech companies, like Qualcomm, are continuing to lead a revolution in the way we communicate, and continue to create new, good-paying jobs.  Our health care industry has demonstrated that it can scale to fight a pandemic.  Every day, San Diegans have helped their neighbors by giving blood, delivering food to a quarantined neighbor, and thanking those on the front-line, including health care professionals and grocery workers.

In the short-term, the local economy is struggling, especially because of our dependence on the hospitality and entertainment sectors whose future is uncertain.  As we build the new San Diego, we need to grow small, medium and large employers that can move the city away from its over-dependence on tourism, which means over-dependence on sales tax and transient occupancy tax revenues.  In the new San Diego, we will work with the life science industry to transform Otay Mesa into a pharmaceutical manufacturing center, because COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of having these products made in the U.S.

As we think about the future of local government and building the new San Diego, we can start framing the conversation by asking questions:

--Where will city employees work in the future, and how much office space does city government need?

--How should we think about land use given new patterns of working and shopping?

--How should we think about mobility regarding public transit, sidewalks, bike lanes, and pedestrian promenades, and what adjustments will this require in our Climate Action Plan?

--How can we use technology to enable our residents to better interact with government and with each other?

--What is the impact of these changes on our region’s employment base?

The old San Diego bought buildings like 101 Ash Street, which is still sitting empty, costing taxpayers $540,000 a month for over three years.  

The new San Diego extricates the city from the 101 Ash Street lease, transitions to a dispersed work force and offers city employees the option to work four days a week and be compensated appropriately.  How much less office space, meeting rooms, parking and support services will be required in the new San Diego?

The new San Diego completes the SDSU Mission Valley transaction quickly to help close the city’s budget shortfall and to create good jobs when SDSU invests $350 million in infrastructure, a river park, and a stadium.  

The new San Diego works with SDSU to make the Mission Valley Campus a regional hub for research and development tied in with the pharmaceutical manufacturing center in Otay Mesa.

As we transition to the new San Diego, how we think about land use is important. Closing of retail businesses during the quarantine has increased on-line shopping. If that trend continues, how many businesses will close permanently, and how can the city plan for repurposing those spaces? While an increase in telecommuting may reduce rush hour traffic, more on-line shopping will mean more deliveries, especially to residences. What effect will that have on traffic patterns? Can former retail spaces and strip mall sites be made available for residential uses? Do zoning plans and codes need to be revised to facilitate such developments? Should the General Plan be revised to promote greater connectivity between residential and commercial uses?

In the new San Diego, we refresh the Climate Action Plan to incorporate more focus on the impact of a dispersed workforce, telecommuting, an optional four-day work week with appropriate compensation, geographically strategic new business development, rethinking density and transit, more realistic incorporation of sea-rise impacts and closer government-private sector cooperation to diminish our carbon footprint.

The new San Diego has many implications for our region’s work force.

More people working from home is likely to reduce vehicle use and increase pedestrian traffic, as well as use of alternative forms of transportation. To allow proper distancing and ensure public safety, what changes will be required to public rights of way? Wider sidewalks? More bicycle lanes?  If so, where?  Improved landscaping? Should some streets be converted to pedestrian promenades?

Transit use has plummeted and is likely to remain low for at least a while due to concerns over maintaining distancing and sanitation. How should the city work with MTS and SANDAG to adjust their plans and facilities to respond to these changes? How can modifications to the transportation system best support the goals of climate action planning?

This crisis has underscored the importance of certain groups of workers, including those involved in health care, food sales, sanitation, education, public safety and deliveries. How can we support these workers with living wages, access to quality healthcare and childcare and affordable housing so they are here when we need them?

The quarantine has greatly impeded citizen participation in city government.  In the new San Diego, how can we utilize communications technologies to enhance public participation, transparency and accountability? We’ve seen an example of how this can occur in the Development Services Department’s successful transition to on-line permitting and a work-from-home business model.  This success should be an inspiration for similar changes in other city departments.

And finally, regarding that most basic function in a representative democracy, how can the city work with the County Registrar of Voters to move toward all-mail city elections?


On April 30, the Budget Review Committee begins hearings on the fiscal year 2021 budget.  This first meeting, at 6 pm, is dedicated to public input and allows the community to inform the Council about their priorities.  Beginning at this meeting, the Budget Review Committee will include live testimony.  The new San Diego must continue to embrace and invest in technology and systems that provide real-time access to all.  From May 4 through May 8, the Council will hear each department’s budget.  Instead of old San Diego’s across the board cuts and shuffling of positions, the new San Diego will focus on best practices in providing and protecting neighborhood services.  On May 11, the Council will hold another evening meeting to hear from the public after departmental details have been presented.  Then each Council member will assess their priorities in memos to the Mayor who will issue a revised budget on May 19, 2020.  The Council is scheduled to approve a final budget on June 8, 2020.


Here are my principles as Budget chair.

1. Every crisis presents an opportunity to re-think the way we provide services and facilities for our constituents.

2. I will ask every department to re-think the way they operate and provide options for more efficient and effective ways to serve the public. I encourage you to think creatively and speak boldly.

3. Just as the City Council must hold every department accountable for its performance, so too must the Council be held accountable for protecting taxpayers and providing clear direction and priorities for City departments.

4. I will demand a transparent budget process that is accessible and understandable for residents whether or not you have Internet access.

5. The budget must be, first and foremost, based on responding to the community’s needs, not on maintaining the City bureaucracy. It’s disappointing to me that most of the proposed budget reductions are in neighborhood services, while bloated management is mostly untouched.

In addition, all scheduled pay raises for elected officials including the Mayor, City Attorney, and city council members should be frozen though June 30, 2021.

We can’t ask city employees to forego raises in order to balance the budget if we’re not prepared to share that burden with them.


Another key consideration in our budget deliberations is smart use of the $244 million in federal stimulus funds earmarked for our city so that we establish a foundation for the new San Diego.  In addition, we should be pressuring the federal government to relax the guidelines so we can continue to provide core services.

--Access to broadband Internet access – and to devices, when necessary – is critical for ensuring every resident – whether worker, single-parent, elderly or student, is able to make the transition to a new normal—to interact with government, to take advantage of  tele-medicine, to shop and for social interactions with family and friends.

--Leasing hotel rooms for the homeless.  As one of the groups most vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis, there will continue to be danger that the virus could spread quickly in this population and contribute to a region-wide resurgence of the virus.

--Re-configuring city facilities including parks, libraries and recreation centers so we can better protect the safety of the public and our employees.

--Upgrading the city’s technology to support enhanced public participation and transparency.

--Increased funding for public safety because of the strain that Coronavirus is putting on these resources.

--Financial assistance to small businesses and non-profits that have been impacted by COVID-19.

I and my colleagues will get into more detail as we review each departmental budget between now and June 8.  But that review must be guided by the imperative for change.  

The NFL established a completely new, physically-distanced process for conducting its annual draft of college players in just a few weeks, and in the process increased the public’s access to this event.  Necessity is and will be the mother of invention.

Incremental adjustments in the status quo will short-change residents and perpetuate inefficiencies that hold city government back.  

A commitment to using this crisis as a catalyst for fundamental change in the way the city delivers services to its residents is required to strengthen our city and prepare us for a post-pandemic future.

View Upcoming Events
Powered by: