Why San Diegans Are to Blame for the City's Problems
September 30, 2011
by Liam Dillon
About nine months ago, I asked Mayor Jerry Sanders about critics who say he focuses too much on downtown at the expense of the city's other neighborhoods. The mayor stopped me before I finished my question.
"You mean Steve Erie?" Sanders said.
The mayor, who rarely calls out his critics by name, was referring to University of California, San Diego political science professor Steve Erie. Now, Erie has given Sanders much more to work with.
Last month, Erie and two other academics released a book on San Diego city government called "Paradise Plundered." The book, as its name implies, takes Sanders, other city leaders and even residents to task for San Diego's financial and governance problems.
Erie blames weak leadership, a disinterested public and, above all, low taxes as the source of San Diego's decay. I spoke with him about the city's financial problems, his critique of Petco Park and other major development projects and his response to Sanders' criticism.
Erie also made a case for why corruption isn't always the worst thing in government.
I'd like to start with the central premise of your book. You say that San Diego has a shiny exterior and crumbling underbelly, sort of a Potemkin village. Can you explain what you mean by that?
There are really two faces or sides to San Diego. There's the San Diego the tourists see. There's a high-tech industry that spawned the new economy by places like UCSD. That's the public face of San Diego at least in terms of the local PR machine, which is very good at getting the San Diego image out.
The reality of San Diego is on the public sector side. I think on the first page we talk about an increasingly grim and visible civic reality, which is dry rot for public services and infrastructure. That's still largely hidden. You get intimations of it like during the 2003 and 2007 fire when you suddenly realize we have very little fire protection.
The problem with San Diego is that the ocean and the sun are both our blessing and our curse. Obviously, it's a wonderful place to live in if you can afford it. But the problem is, is that it induces sort of a sense of complacency that as long as the sun comes up everything is OK.
You say that San Diegans are as much to blame for the city's problems as its politicians. So why are they, or why are we, to blame?
You have to understand history. The first thing you need to understand about San Diego is that for years it was a military town. Navy Town, USA. That meant a couple of things in terms of the willingness to pay for local services. One is military pay wasn't all that great. Number two there was a sense that Uncle Sam would provide.
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In addition to this military heritage, there's a libertarian culture here that's particularly anti-local government: Local government is a hot-bed of waste, fraud and corruption. You hear this not only from politicians but from voters all the time.
It's very hard to move voters. The only thing I think in this town that will move them is really a grand coalition. It is the elected officials using the bully pulpit. And a united business community actively supporting things. And the media on board. You see that in a place like Chicago. It's a Republican business community. It's a Democratic machine. The Chicago Tribune has hated the Daleys for years. Yet when it comes to raising revenue and taxes for needed public services and investments they all speak with one voice.
Isn't Chicago notorious for being the most corrupt big city in the country?
But it's a better form of corruption than you have here in San Diego. It's systemic corruption rather than ad hoc or personal corruption.
What I mean by that is, it's cost plus 10 or 15 percent. You just add that on. It's tithing on the part of the machine. And then the services get delivered.
Why should the public stand for that?
Because it works. You just pay more. It works. In San Diego, you pay less and it doesn't work.
But if you look at Chicago's pension situation from a pure numbers perspective, they're in a lot worse place than San Diego is.
But a place like Chicago and a place like Los Angeles, which is also facing pension difficulties now, they tend to have sources of revenue and an ability or capability to raise revenue. Both of those things are lacking in San Diego. In Los Angeles, right, they just took money out of the Department of Water and Power. It was an ATM machine.
The deficit looks big right now, but the ability to solve it within let's say a five to 10 year period is greater in those communities than it is here.
But how is borrowing from the Department of Water and Power or taking from the Department of Water and Power, how is that good government?
That wasn't the question that you asked. That's a secondary problem, right?
Is it the right way to run a government? Is it really a hidden tax on ratepayers? Yeah, it is. But that's the way, until recently, these places have worked.
What's interesting about San Diego is that we were just the first to get caught. Because we were an early and eager underfunder of the pension among other things. If anything I hope that this book will be read as a cautionary tale of what happens when you go down this route.
Is it fair to say you blame San Diego's financial crisis on inadequate revenues?
On inadequate revenues, yes.
Why is that the primary cause?
San Diego is well below the average in terms of spending on a lot of metrics.
It doesn't mean that it's at the bottom. There are others that are at the bottom, too. But on average the other California cities they spend like today 50 percent more on basic services. They don't have unaccredited fire departments. They don't have the smallest police department in the nation of any big city. They don't have roads with potholes where the deferred maintenance is such. So much of the crisis of public services and infrastructure is our unwillingness to spend money on services.
Back in 1972 we were spending just about the average. You'll notice that the trend line begins to diverge, San Diego dropping further and further behind.
Some could say L.A. is the worst case possible. They throw money at government and public services. But, and not to say that any San Diegan would like to live in Los Angeles, but if there were a major fire where would you wanna be?...