barbara bry city council
A San Diego City Council meeting in November 2019. File photo by Zoë Meyers/inewsource

The economic impact of COVID-19 is widespread and local governments will be hit particularly hard due to their reliance on sales tax and other declining tax revenues.

In fact, with the tourism industry suffering more than many industries, the city of San Diego is expected to be hit disproportionately hard. This translates to a projected $427 million shortfall in Mayor Kevin Falconer’s proposed 2021 budget.

During budget hearings earlier this month, members of the San Diego City Council lamented cuts to programs and services including:

  • Nearly $1.4 million from the police department’s STAR/PAL program, which focuses on underserved youth
  • $6.8 million from our libraries, which will result in Sunday and Monday closures
  • $5.9 million from our parks and recreation, more than half of which will occur by reducing recreation center hours across the city by 15 hours a week

But what if City Council members could find extra savings so the cuts to high-value city services weren’t so deep? They can — and they need not look any further than their own budgets.

The proposed operating budget for the City Council next year is $14.7 million, which is $1.5 million higher than the council spent just last year. The vast majority of these budgets go to the hiring of political staff. As the leaders of our city, councilmembers should propose deeper cuts to their own political staff in order to save critical city services.

Joe Leventhal

Today, each councilmember gets a different budgeted amount for their political staff. If Councilmember Chris Ward in District 3 can effectively run his office with a budget of $1.16 million, as the Mayor’s budget proposes, why is another councilmember receiving $1.53 million — nearly 32% higher than District 3? Shouldn’t all councilmembers be able to serve their constituents with the same budget and staff numbers?

It’s time that all councilmembers receive the same budget for their political staff. If councilmembers were willing to live on the same budget as District 3, the city would save over $2.5 million compared to the previous year’s budget and almost $1.4 million compared to the Mayor’s proposed budget for next year. Surprisingly, this still represents a larger budget than the City Council actually spent last year.

San Diegans have had to tighten their belts to adapt to this economic crisis. It’s time that the City Council members do the same. Leveling the budgets across the council is one easy way to show leadership by example.

To take it one step further, councilmembers could save almost $3 million compared with this year if they reduced their overall “council administration” budget to last year’s actual spending levels. But even without that, the additional $1.4 million savings from their own district budgets could transform their lamentations about program cuts into positive change — directly saving the cuts to the STAR/PAL program, or keeping some libraries and recreation centers open longer in the city. These are the city functions our citizens value most.

Joe Leventhal is a business owner and former San Diego Ethics Commissioner who is running for election to the San Diego City Council in District 5.