From Libraries to Lawyers: Shifting Budget Priorities
May 1, 2011
by Liam Dillon
Voice of San Diego
San Diego's library system has eroded over the past six years. Mayor Jerry Sanders freely admits it.
"We've taken them down to a very small percentage of what they used to be," Sanders said at a recent budget forum.
Libraries used to be a greater budget priority. While nearly every city department has seen cuts during a decade of San Diego budget deficits, reductions to libraries have been deeper. Its budget has decreased from $38.7 million in Sanders' first budget in 2007 to $30.1 million under the mayor's proposal for next year. Its percentage of the city's day-to-day operating budget will have g0ne down by more than 1 percent, too.
As libraries have lost, others have gained.
In 2007, the City Attorney's Office received $36.2 million, or $2.5 million less than libraries. Its proposed 2012 allocation will be $42.4 million, or $12 million more than libraries. The percentage the attorney's office receives of the city budget has gone up by 0.3 percent since 2007 as well.
City Attorney Jan Goldsmith argues his department's budget has increased because of costs outside his control, such as paying for a share of the city's growing retirement obligations. Beyond the vagaries of the city budgeting, Sanders, City Council members and even a key library supporter defended the city attorney for keeping the city out of trouble and from racking up outside legal costs.
The downside of cutting libraries is clear. They'll be closed. For attorneys, the effects are less obvious. A smaller legal department could mean lost lawsuits, missed opportunities or bigger bills for outside contracts. But as the mayor and council stress the need to protect public safety and other front line city services in a time of continued budget pressure, they'll have to come to terms with the realization that the city's team of lawyers costs increasingly more than its team of librarians.
The City Attorney's Office files or defends lawsuits involving the city, provides legal advice to the mayor, council and all departments, and prosecutes about 35,000 misdemeanor cases a year. Good lawyers cost money, Goldsmith said in an interview. The fact that they have cost more in the past six years, he said, has little to do with him.
Nearly the entire $4 million hike in his budget this year came from costs associated with rising pension and other retirement obligations, an increase he couldn't do anything about. Further, Goldsmith contended his office took that hit more than others because its costs are almost all personnel.
Goldsmith's office has spent less than its budget the last two years. He's left some positions empty and replaced higher paid jobs with lower level ones. Goldsmith also said he decreased costs for outside attorneys, but those savings primarily appear in other department's budgets.
"Each year we've come in with a plan on how we're going to do our fair share," Goldsmith said.
But for some, it's not fair enough. At a recent community budget forum, Sanders answered a written question about a chart that showed the city attorney's budget larger than the library's.
"Please explain how this is shared pain," the question asked.
Sanders responded that attorneys are expensive, and it costs more to hire outside counsel than do legal work in-house...