Aguirre, Frye Debate Prop. D Sales Tax Measure Before Queer Democrats

author: 
Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine

The campaign over Proposition D — an attempt to raise the sales tax in San Diego one-half cent to avoid draconian cuts in police, fire and other city services — has made strange bedfellows. Former city attorney Mike Aguirre, an otherwise progressive Democrat, has made common cause with Right-wing talk radio hosts and anti-tax zealots in opposing the measure. He and progressive City Councilmember Donna Frye debated Prop. D at the September 23 meeting of the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club — which overwhelmingly voted to endorse the measure.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

San Diego City Councilmember Donna Frye and former city attorney Mike Aguirre squared off in an intense, often emotional debate about Proposition D, a five-year half-cent increase in the city’s sales tax coupled to a program of 10 “reforms” to city government and budgeting, at the regular San Diego Democratic Club meeting in Hillcrest September 23. Frye, who spoke in favor of the tax increase, stressed the draconian cuts in the city’s budget — including less spending on police, fire and other public safety departments — if the tax measure loses in the November 2 election. Aguirre, who as city attorney mounted an extensive and largely unsuccessful effort to break the city’s pension agreements in court, said that most of the new tax would go to pay pensions, and as an alternative the city ought to declare bankruptcy and thereby get out from under its pension liabilities.

“How quickly we can be insensitive to others when we’ve asked people to be sensitive to us,” Aguirre began his presentation. He compared San Diego to Bell, the tiny Los Angeles County city that became a metaphor for political corruption when the Los Angeles Times exposed the huge salaries and pensions its staff members were getting, “Jerry Brown is suing to take away the illegal pension benefits,” Aguirre said. “The top 300 pensioners [in San Diego city government] get over $100,000 [per year]. City Councilmembers pay for only 8 percent of their pensions. They get [credit for] 13 years when they’re only supposed to get eight. Every attorney, police officer and firefighter retires a millionaire.”

Frye replied that according to the San Diego Union-Tribune — hardly a source one would expect to be biased in favor of city retirees — “the average city pension is $42,600. The general average is $37,000. For police and other public safety employees, it’s $62,000. For firefighters, it’s $67,000. For elected officials, it’s $27,000.” While Aguirre cited the spirits of dead Democratic and progressive heroes — including Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John and Robert Kennedy and César Chávez — and said they’d oppose Proposition D if they were alive today, Frye talked about the burden of having served as a City Councilmember for nearly a decade of declining revenues and increasing demand for city services.

“People value police and firefighters, parks and recreation centers, and they like having their libraries open,” Frye said. “They’re tired of potholes and broken sidewalks. They want the pension problems fixed, pensions more like those of the private sector, and managed competition. When this was put on the ballot, six of the eight City Councilmembers supported it. The Mayor supported it. Private business supported it. This is a five-year tax, and what you get in exchange is permanent reform before revenue” — referring to the clause in the proposition that says the city can’t collect the new tax until the independently elected city auditor says the 10 items in the “reform” agenda have been completed.

“The alternative is going to be very painful,” Frye said. “We’ve already cut over $300 million from the city budget. In the next fiscal year, we’re looking at big hits. This is not a scare tactic,” she added — referring to an argument of the anti-D campaign that the City Council is trying to intimidate voters into approving the measure by threatening to cut police and fire services. “We’re already having rolling brownouts” — a term used for shutting down fire stations temporarily throughout the city — “and a reduction in the number of police officers per 1,000 population from 166 to 158. This is a solution on which we can all work together. If my opponents have a better idea, I’d like to see it.”

Aguirre criticized Proposition D for relying on a regressive sales tax. “Franklin Roosevelt said taxation based on ability to pay is the only fair principle,” he argued. “Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Woodrow Wilson would never have supported taxing poor people to pay for the pensions of government employees. We believe in taxation based on equal sacrifice. We don’t think that the poor should pay for the better-off.” Aguirre said the city’s pension burden has grown from $1 billion five years ago to $2 billion today. He claimed that last year the city paid $283 million in pensions, 43 percent of its total budget for compensating employees, and just the interest on the pension debt is consuming 6 to 7 percent of the city’s budget.

“That’s why I say have the city declare bankruptcy and put the pension plans before a vote of the people,” Aguirre said. “The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission says it was the biggest financial fraud in U.S. municipal history.” According to Aguirre, because all the money raised by Proposition D will go towards pensions, San Diegans won’t see any additional city services in return for this regressive sales tax. He also criticized the proposition for citing the Miramar landfill as one of the city services to be privatized — saying that this would cut the pay of already low-paid workers handling the city’s garbage so that more affluent city retirees wouldn’t lose any of their pensions.

Of the 10 “reforms” listed in Proposition D that have to be completed before the sales tax hike takes effect, seven have to do with pensions and three with outsourcing or privatizing city services. But most of them simply require the city to provide guidelines for privatization. There are only two city departments — the Miramar landfill and information technology — for which the city would be required to solicit bids from private contractors. One of the pension reforms would require the San Diego Fire Department to establish a lower pension for new employees similar to that already enacted by the Police Department. Most of the rest are goals that still have to be negotiated with the city employees’ unions.

Former club president Craig Roberts said he would vote to endorse Proposition D because “the six members of the City Council [who voted to put it on the ballot] are the Democratic members, and the only two Councilmembers who didn’t support it are Republicans. If they tell me to do something, I usually run the other way. I don’t want to outsource jobs either, but the voters endorsed this and it’s now city law. It blows my mind that people are so cheap in San Diego they won’t pay the taxes for a decent level of city services.”

La Jolla Democratic activist Derek Casady argued against D. “The one bunch of city employees we’re going to turn out are the garbage people at the landfill,” he said. “Why don’t you turn out the people at the top?”

“When you’re talking about cutting services, you’re taking recreation centers away from people who don’t have the option of joining 24 Hour Fitness,” said Jess Durfee, chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party and former president of the San Diego Democratic Club. “They depend on our public libraries because they can’t afford to buy books at Barnes & Noble. When I go to the library, half the time it’s closed. We’ve invested in the library structures and materials, and now we can’t keep them open.” Eventually the club voted overwhelmingly to support D, with only three opposed.

Aguirre struck again on Proposition B, a city ballot measure that would essentially provide civil service protection to deputy city attorneys by establishing a “good cause requirement” for firing any deputy city attorney who’s served two years or more. “Our organization pushed for this,” said George Schaefer, president of the Deputy City Attorney’s Association, because when Mike Aguirre became city attorney “125 of the 132 deputy city attorneys left and we had to hire outside counsel. Both the County Democratic Party and the County Republican Party have endorsed this. It’s a matter of fairness.”

Demanding the right to reply, Aguirre ran into a roadblock: club president Larry Baza’s ruling at the start of the meeting that only paid-up members would be allowed to participate in the discussions. Aguirre had let his San Diego Democratic Club membership lapse, but came to that night’s meeting with a filled-out membership application and a dues check. Once he was allowed to speak, Aguirre said that only about 60 people left the city attorney’s office when he got elected and he wouldn’t have been able to hire former club political action vice-president Alex Sachs if B had been in effect when he took office. Aguirre warned that passage of Proposition B will leave all the appointees of his successor, conservative Republican Jan Goldsmith, in office indefinitely and “we won’t be able to get rid of them” even if another Democratic city attorney is elected in the future.

Aguirre’s concerns were seconded by the club’s vice-president for development, Bob Leyh. “We’re an at-will state, and I don’t want people to have lifetime employment and pensions,” Leyh said. Jess Durfee said that Leyh was wrong — that California is not a state where employers are permitted to fire employees at will — and another club member said appointees of the President and the Governor of California have civil-service protection, so why not deputy city attorneys? The club endorsed Proposition B overwhelmingly, with 32 votes in favor to five against.

The other controversial local proposition was J, a proposal by the San Diego Unified School District to add $98 to the property tax on each single-family home in the district, and larger amounts on commercial or rental properties, to raise money that the state can’t take away from the school district in its annual struggle to balance its own budget. This would require two-thirds voter approval. Leyh argued against J on the ground that in the middle of a recession, “This is not the time for the school district to raise taxes to pay more money for teachers.”

“Teachers aren’t and will never be paid enough,” replied former club president Roberts, “but most of us can afford to keep our class sizes reasonable.”

“I spent 15 years in the classroom, and I know the challenges teachers and parents face when the schools are underfunded,” said Durfee. “The San Diego Unified School District is facing a $42 million shortfall. Proposition J won’t fill it totally, but it will help. The shortfall translates to three rounds of teacher layoffs.” Eventually a motion to endorse J passed with just one opposing vote.

The club also endorsed a no vote on county proposition A, which would ban project-labor agreements (PLA’s) designed to make sure workers on county building and redevelopment projects get paid union wages; and yes on Proposition C, which removes a restriction that the Pacific Highlands Ranch community could not be built until the state finished a freeway extension in the area.

Finally, the club endorsed two insurgent candidates for the troubled Southwestern Community College District board of trustees, Norma Hernandez and Tim Nader, both of whom appeared at the meeting. A third candidate, Jessica Saenz-Gonzalez, was represented by her campaign secretary, David McAllister, but didn’t get the endorsement because of her stand for laws requiring notifying parents if their underage daughters seek abortions. Saenz-Gonzalez was also alleged to have supported prayer in classrooms and the teaching of “intelligent design” as an alternative to evolution — both of which McAllister denied.

The district is currently on academic probation and is threatened with the loss of accreditation —meaning its courses wouldn’t be counted for credit by any other college and its graduates wouldn’t qualify for work in the fields they had studied there. There were also allegations that the current board had retaliated against teachers and other Southwestern staff who protested against their policies. “Andy McNeal and Janet Mazzorela, two teachers and union representatives, helped students protest the cuts in classes, and they were put on administrative leave,” Hernandez alleged. “Andy, as union president, has been under scrutiny, and the student newspaper was told they wouldn’t be allowed to print an issue in which they planned to publish a story about this.”

“I recently returned from an eight-year volunteer stint in Turkmenistan, and I thought I’d seen the last of retaliatory and discriminatory measures against people,” said Nader. “The Southwestern Community College Board not only put four teachers on administrative leave but sent campus police to their homes at night. The board has two responsibilities: pass the annual budget and hire, fire and supervise the college president. This board, in spite of a unanimous faculty vote of no confidence in the current president, gave him a five-year contract and an eight percent raise. A former student body president offered an alternative to the budget cuts, and the board would not even delay the vote to consider it.”
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Mike Aguirre and Donna Frye