By KENDRA SITTON
San Diego City is close to completing its arduous process for the $4.89 billion Fiscal Year 2023 budget. After months of community input and the budget going back between the mayor’s office and the city council, the budget must be adopted by June 30.
In a District 3 town hall meeting, Council member Stephen Whitburn said he largely agrees with the mayor’s proposed budget and appreciates the investment in addressing homelessness and public safety as well as historic investment in infrastructure – which is especially needed in District 3, the oldest area in San Diego.
The budget is larger this year compared to the last two years of the pandemic due to a projection of the city receiving more from the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), meaning more tourists are visiting the city.
The vast majority of the general fund will be spent on the police and fire departments. The mayor is increasing funding for water, stormwater and sewage infrastructure.
Of the $69 million to be spent on addressing the homelessness crisis, much of those funds come from the state.
Not all priorities were included in the budget. A program that offered rental assistance to people facing homelessness will have its funding reduced. Other items that did not make it into budget include a pilot subsidy program for older adults, homeless shelters for seniors, public banking feasibility study, additional staff for the Americans with Disabilities Act, and relief for small businesses and nonprofits.
The city is understaffed due to poor compensation compared to the private sector and its drawn-out hiring process. The budget includes raises for many city employees as well as adding a few new positions, including two fulltime employees for the new Office of Race and Equity.
Arts funding is being brought back to pre-pandemic levels. There is also a new investment in the Parks and Rec department for restroom cleanings, graffiti erasure and security.
Following the adoption of limits on short-term rentals, $2 million is designated on enforcing the new ordinance.
Officials from the Office of the Independent Budget Analyst spoke to the attendees about some of the issues in the budget, including the dependence on federal funds and that it is structurally unbalanced. The structural imbalance exists because ongoing expenditures are being funded by money meant for one-time expenditures.
In addition, they noted that despite the unprecedented investment in infrastructure it still is nowhere close to what is needed to clear the backlog. The ongoing deferral of infrastructure improvements will increase the cost over time as something that needed a repair may need to be replaced by the time the city gets to it.
Following the explanation of the budget, District 3 residents gave their input on what projects they would like to see funded in this year’s budget.
A coalition of University Heights leaders spoke at a town hall meeting on Monday, May 24 to seek an update on whether their budget priorities had made it into the revised budget.
Whitburn noted that it had been listed as one of his budget priorities in January but he was still reviewing the latest budget proposal ahead of a Friday deadline to send a memo with final changes.
“[It’s] still very much an ongoing process,” the council member explained.
Attendee William Elig said that from a citizen’s point of view, the budget process was not very transparent because it was difficult to find what small neighborhood projects are being funded under the larger budget items like libraries or parks funding.
Marc Johnson echoed his concern about transparency – saying that neighborhoods often do not know something has been funded in a previous budget until the project breaks ground.
Whitburn agreed that too often communities find out about a project when construction begins.
“That is one of our concerns our office has had over the years,” Whitburn said.
Attendees also wanted to know how the neighborhood projects they advocate for make it into the larger budget.
Charles Modica, the deputy director of the Independent Budget Analyst (IBA) Office, said, “Quite frankly… coming to town halls and commenting at city council is usually reflected in changes.”
Obviously even loud advocates have been disappointed before – Normal Heights has been pushing for the completion of Ward Canyon Park for decades with little progress.
Ryan Darsey of the District 3 office said some of the projects residents pushed for have received funding. After years of advocacy in Golden Hill, the office secured $3.4 million in funding for the Golf Course Drive project in this budget.
The IBA staff noted that a lot of the smaller projects can be found in Volume 3 of the budget on the city’s website and that the website has a Capital Improvement Project search tool which shows a map of where projects are.
Still, as constituents and city council members push for more transparent communication between citizens and government, the current tools to find out what is funded in the budget leaves much to be desired.
The city council is holding its final hearings on the budget in mid-June and the budget must be adopted by June 30.