Paving Mallard Street
San Diego should use the federal aid to continue making street repairs. Photo by Chris Jennewein

Here we go again. No matter the year, the danger, or the outlook, the most popular city services get cut the most.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are about to unveil another massive spending proposal—of “Rooseveltian” proportions—to counter the national COVID-19 economic collapse.

Meanwhile, San Diego’s politicians are debating how to proceed with their own deficit.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer is considering drawing down about $80 million of its reserve funds to offset revenue losses—while simultaneously sitting on a $248 million pile of federal monies cash courtesy of the earlier COVID-19 Relief and Economic Security Act.

He has proposed serious budget cuts for all the usual suspects: libraries, parks, pools, and arts funding—the most popular programs in the City.

Next up for the chopping block will probably be reductions for any sidewalk cleanings, trash pick-ups, street repairs, beach cleanings, after school programs, and more.

While they are wrangling over how to cut, they are also debating how to spend the existing COVID-19 federal money.

The Treasury guidelines are straightforward, yet wobbly, and frequently updated.

For example; “Cities have to spend that money responding to the crisis, and can’t use it to replace lost revenue from the collapse in economic activity, according to guidance the Treasury Department issued last month and updated last week.”

For now, however, the language in the act is vague enough to include almost anything not designed to top off the city’s general fund. All sorts of training, education, remote learning, and other efforts are allowed.

So spend it already. Now is the time for the City Council to be bold, imaginative, and different.

Create a separate body to supervise the accounting and disbursement of these funds. Take it out of the hands of the politicians who are indebted to their donors, stakeholders, and developer campaign contributors.

The city needs to maintain what is best about our neighborhoods—not target those public services for the biggest cutbacks—while sitting on funds designed to help.

Follow President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal make-works program—the Civilian Conservation Corps. Or Governor Jerry Brown ‘s like-minded example of the California Conservation Corps that employed thousands of young men and women.

The San Diego CCC was a summer program, located in the Laguna mountains. There high school girls spent their weekdays housed in a ranger compound while working on trail maintenance, brush clearings, campground construction, and simultaneously learning geology, forestry and environmental science.

That corps morphed into the Urban Corps of San Diego, founded in 1989 with help from former Representative Lynn Schenk and then-Mayor Maureen O’Connor, on an initial budget of $125,000. These co-ed enrollees engaged in a variety of community service and conservation projects, including stadium cleanup, trash pickup and graffiti removal.

They needed work. The city provided the jobs. The city did it before. The city can do it again.

Simply create a new CCC—a City COVID-19 Corps—to manage and oversee the new federal monies. More will come in the next stimulus package.

Avoid wasting time, talent, and precious funds and preserve what is best about the city today.

Forget the grand infrastructure plans. The city can’t even properly clean the sidewalks, fix the potholes or maintain the parks. Or save its small businesses. The time for help is now.

Use the COVID-19 Corps to take advantage of all the wobbly language and draft a plan.

Do not be afraid. Ignore the legal challenges. The clogged court system, ample bureaucratic incompetence, and the virus itself will save you. Just be fair and transparent.

Remember the controversy over the Mt. Soledad cross that began in the late 1980s?

It took 25 years of challenges and appeals to wind through the courts until September 7, 2016, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit issued a one-page ruling, ordering dismissal of the case and an end to all current appeals.

By the time any potential City COVID-19 Corps questions are adjudicated, the current mayor and council members will be long gone.

Use some imagination. Deploy the federal resources to include lots of jobs. Now is the time.

Spend the federal COVID-19 money now. Ask Questions Later.

Colleen O’Connor is a native San Diegan and a retired college professor.