San Diego Is America in Miniature

The City of San Diego has an enormous deficit for a city its size — $73 million — and on Monday held a town-hall meeting to discuss it. The city went through all the usual steps, which are: 1. threatening to cut police and fire services first, as though there were no other opportunities for savings; 2. demanding a tax increase. (Do read the story here.)

Being a masochist, I took a peek at the City of San Diego’s budget. Here’s an example of the austerity under which poor San Diegan municipal authorities labor: The Office of the Mayor and COO in FY2010 made due with a mere $551,681 in compensation for its employees. In FY2011, that figure will increase by $115,911, to a total of $667,592. Here’s the kicker: The department has only three employees, meaning that each is compensated to the mean tune of $222,530 and change.

But, hey, a mayor-and-COO’s office with only three employees? A tight ship! That’s not too bad, right? Wrong: The mayor’s staff is part of another department, the Department of Community and Legislative Services, which for budget purposes is lumped in with the Commission for Arts and Culture (because, God knows, no city can get by without one of those). That’s another 46 employees, at an average total cost of $123,913. And there’s an assistant COO’s office with 116 employees at $100,000 a copy.

And non-personnel spending has climbed significantly: The city’s cost for “special consulting services,” whatever that means, climbed by nearly $1 million this year. The city hadn’t budgeted any additional money for increased costs of administering its property taxes, but spent nearly $5 million. Why should property-tax collection be getting more expensive? San Diegans might want to know. (Bear in mind: Lots of non-personnel spending probably ends up being in truth personnel spending, too, as it does in most cities: Certain benefits and retirees’ costs often are separated. It is not clear from San Diego’s budget statement whether that is the case here.)

One city councilman has a nose for what really drives city budgets, and demanded to know how taxpayers could be sure that a tax hike would actually go to funding police and fire services, rather than toward selling the already bloated pension-benefits system for city retirees:

City Councilmember Carl DeMaio called the proposition a “blank check tax increase.”  He said if passed, the revenue raised from Prop D [the tax increase bill] may not end up going to police and fire.

“Where we do know the money has been going is the city’s pension system to pay outlandish and unsustainable payouts for retired city employees,” DeMaio told NBCSanDiego.

Answer: Take our word for it.

And the city’s retirement system is one big kahuna indeed, a $43 million-a-year beast requiring 62 employees at an average cost of $113,000 each to administer it. Interestingly, the biggest chunk of its budget, more than $33 million, is dedicated to something simply described as “contracts.” Whether those are contracts to pay out retirement benefits or something else is not clear. A little detail, people! It’s $33 million!

Notice none of this even touches on the police and fire departments. I’ve seen a lot of city budgets in my life, and I’ve rarely seen a police or fire department that could not be trimmed. But there’s a lot of administrative fat in our cities, counties, states, school districts, and federal government. We are not going to balance the aggregate of the nation’s governmental books with cuts directed toward the usual cowardly trio of “waste, fraud, and abuse,” but there is a lot of waste, fraud, and abuse that can be cut, and a whole parasite class of political hacks in lifetime sinecures with fat benefits and pensions who need to be encouraged to find productive work.  

– Kevin D. Williamson is deputy managing editor of National Review and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, to be published in January.

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