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San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria is proposing to spend significantly more money on parks, the arts, reducing homelessness, fighting climate change and boosting quality of life with more services delivered more quickly.

Gloria plans to unveil a proposed budget Friday that increases city spending in essentially all areas, from graffiti abatement to large infrastructure projects. The city’s annual operating budget would jump 8.2 percent, from $1.74 billion to $1.89 billion.

The city has enough money to cover such increases and avoid any budget cuts because of reviving tax revenues — especially sales tax — and $180 million in federal pandemic aid left over from the $300 million San Diego got last spring.

Another factor is the city’s annual pension payment shrinking by $31 million because of strong stock market returns in 2020. Gloria is also proposing to delay $30 million in scheduled contributions to city reserves.

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Gloria, who provided The San Diego Union-Tribune an advance copy of his budget, characterized it as a “transitional” spending plan that San Diego residents made possible by getting vaccinated and persevering through the pandemic.

“What we want to accomplish in this budget is to begin a transition from a sort of reactive and crisis-oriented approach to one that is much more stable and service-oriented and capable of meeting the expectations and needs of our residents and the neighborhoods of our city,” the mayor said.

The budget makes modest, incremental increases to a wide variety of programs and initiatives. They include policing vacation rentals, weed abatement, sanitizing sidewalks, cracking down on abandoned cars and boosting security at libraries.

“These are relatively modest things, but I think these are things San Diegans will notice in their day-to-day lives,” Gloria said.

The budget would also boost aid for small businesses, expand free broadband access in low-income areas, fund aggressive enforcement of scooters and add new parking enforcement teams to help free up spots in key areas.

On traffic, the budget would spend $300,000 to create a new management center where city officials could observe intersections and immediately change stoplights to alleviate congestion.

It would also spend $550,000 to create a new team of workers who would replace outdated and often malfunctioning signal loops — patches of pavement near stoplights that trigger lights to change when a car activates them.

Arts funding would increase from $9.6 million to $12.7 million. And the city would spend $4.3 million boosting parks with more employee recruitment, better training, new grant writers and conversion of many part-time workers to full-time.

Those proposed expenditures are part of the $77.7 million the mayor says he wants to spend on “critical operational needs.”

The budget, which covers the new fiscal year that starts July 1, would look far different without vaccines and without federal pandemic aid, Gloria said.

“We would be talking about significant, drastic and Draconian cuts,” he said.

Gloria said he delayed scheduled reserve contributions partly because that could jeopardize federal pandemic aid — if a city can afford to increase its reserves, then it is hard to justify needing federal pandemic aid.

But also because many San Diegans are still struggling to get back on their feet after the pandemic, Gloria said.

“We need to put as much money as we can into services because that is what San Diegans need right now to get through this transition period,” he said. “My promise to San Diegans is that every nickel that has been entrusted to us will be used to benefit the people and the neighborhoods we serve.”

The city’s general fund reserve would remain at $205 million under Gloria’s proposal, about 11 percent of the proposed budget of $1.89 billion. City reserves could become crucial if there is an economic recession.

Gloria is proposing a $9.4 million increase to a special city reserve to pay lawsuit settlements, which has been depleted by some large recent payouts.

The mayor proposes to spend the city’s $7.3 million pension stabilization reserve, even though the city’s annual payment is shrinking by $31 million this year.

The rationale is that the city’s pension system is experiencing more flux right now than possibly ever before.

The nullification by the courts of 2012’s Proposition B pension cuts will cost the city $29 million immediately, and the city owes another $39 million to create pensions for thousands of employees who don’t have them.

But the city can stop paying into 401(k) style retirement plans that were created in lieu of pensions a decade ago, which will save the city $23.5 million per year. And payout of the $39 million is likely to get spread over several years by the city’s pension system.

The budget includes $13.3 million to cover anticipated pay raises for police officers, firefighters and lifeguards, plus targeted raises for other jobs where San Diego’s relatively low salaries make it difficult to recruit workers.

In the past, the city has given raises of more than 25 percent to dispatchers, city engineers and other workers who were making far less than their counterparts in other cities.

Nearly 1,800 city jobs, about 15 percent of the city’s 11,940 budgeted positions, are vacant. City officials say that’s primarily because of uncompetitive salaries.

Most city workers are slated to get pay raises of just over 3 percent this fiscal year that have already been built into the budget, so the $13.3 million would cover larger raises for public safety workers and targeted workers.

The budget also includes more general fund spending on infrastructure than in recent years. The city would devote a record $28.4 million in general fund money to infrastructure under Proposition H, a 2016 ballot measure.

That money would cover $16 million for parks upgrades, $7 million for sidewalks and $2 million for fire stations.

Gloria is proposing another $29.7 million in general fund money for infrastructure, which would cover flood prevention and resilience, and efforts to reduce pollution in stormwater.

These infrastructure expenditures would be in addition to a separate capital improvement budget of $809 million. Most of the money from that budget comes from gas tax revenue, grants and other sources.

City spending on homelessness prevention would increase from $49 million to $63 million under Gloria’s proposal, with the extra money being spent primarily on new shelter beds that have already been announced and stronger coordination of street outreach efforts.

Homelessness money would remain about $20 million from the city and about $3 million from the federal government, but the state’s contribution would sharply increase from $24.5 million to $39.5 million — accounting for the annual increase in local spending.

While Gloria proposes to increase police funding in some areas, including overtime, the police budget would actually decrease from $593.3 million to $584.2 million because of savings created by the city’s ongoing pension changes.

The budget would also devote $18 million to ramping up city efforts on stormwater — boosting flood control efforts and reducing pollution in water that runs into bays, oceans and other bodies of water. The city is facing nearly $1 billion in stormwater upgrades in the coming years to comply with state and federal mandates.

The proposed spending plan would also take concrete steps to implement the city’s climate action plan, which has been praised as innovative but criticized as something the city has failed to follow through on. New efforts focus on boosting sustainability, mobility, energy independence and diversion of organic waste.

“We are making a good faith effort to back up the plans that we put out with the dollars to actually make them real,” Gloria said.

Reviving revenue plays a key role in funding the proposed new spending. Strong homes sales are expected to spike property tax during the new fiscal year from $672 million to $700 million, while sales tax is expected to rise from $321 million to $369 million.

Hotel taxes, the revenue stream hit hardest by the pandemic, have returned to 2019 levels and are projected to increase 37 percent in the new fiscal year. But they are still well below where they had been expected to increase before the pandemic.

San Diego is projected to use $120 million of federal pandemic aid during the ongoing budget year, leaving $180 million. Gloria is proposing to spend $124 million in the new budget year and the remaining $56 million in fiscal year 2024.

The mayor has scheduled an 11 a.m. news conference in Mission Beach to unveil his proposed budget.

Source: This post first appeared on sandiegouniontribune.com

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