Odds of saving libraries and rec centers better than Lions making playoffs

Tony Manolatos Tony Manolatos 6 Comments

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Stories about budget cuts are easy to tell and reaction is fierce, but the coverage is often misleading

Just about every media outlet has recently and repeatedly told San Diegans the news isn’t good – massive cuts to your libraries and rec centers are coming.

It’s a great story for the overworked journalist. Easy to report. Easy to write. Readers, who rarely respond, write strongly worded letters to the editor. This prompts more of the same stories.

All of this would be okay if the storyline was a straightforward tale about pending cuts  – but this is only half the story.

How does a city decimate libraries and rec centers if the City Council is opposed? Simple: it can’t. And there’s the rub – several council members have said they don’t support the cuts Mayor Jerry Sanders is proposing to libraries and rec centers. And……(wait for it)……the Council has the final say when it comes to deciding what is and isn’t in the City’s annual budget. This authority is arguably council’s most important role.

It’s why I was fond of saying last fall – during the battle over a sales tax increase (you may have heard about it) – that the Detroit Lions would win a Super Bowl before the City Council would vote to lay off police and firefighters. I’m a lifelong Lions fan (yes, we do exist!) so I speak with authority on this nuanced topic.

It’s important to remember that the Mayor has presented a proposed budget to the Council, which now has its turn to set priorities. Public deliberations and changes will surface over the next couple months. The final version of the budget will be in place by July 1, 2011.

The Council needs to find roughly $14 million to eliminate the proposed cuts to libraries and rec centers. That’s in a budget of $1.1 billion. I would say there is a good chance the City Council can shift 1 percent of the budget to save these neighborhood services.

If I were a betting man I’d put my money on the Council preserving libraries and rec centers before I would take the Lions making the playoffs. Even if Matthew Stafford – the talented but fragile quarterback for the Lions – stays healthy, I still prefer the Council here.

If it succeeds, the media coverage will be positive, but the copy and the headlines won’t carry the same bite, meaning the impact on readers won’t be the same. This week’s batch of news stories about inevitable cuts from some (but not all) news outlets will leave taxpayers with a bad aftertaste that won’t wash away easily.

A story about the City Council preserving services never plays as well as one about massive cuts. The latter also suggests ineptness and complacency on behalf of the Council.

Councilmember Kevin Faulconer and other council leaders have made it clear they will find alternatives to these proposed cuts.

Budget cuts are a red meat story for a reporter. But, as with any meal, there is clearly more than one course to this story.

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Comments 6

  1. Tony:

    Oh, my Michigander friend. The minute I saw the Lions comparison, I knew it was you!

    P.S. You once loved those leading, bleeding stories too.

    Best,

    Erica

  2. ATTABOY to Councilman Faulconer for defending
    San Diego City’s branch libraries. Another reason
    he is a successful councilman.

  3. A cynical person might think Sanders is scaring people with cuts to popular services to build support for a tax increase. However, the mayor has a such an unassailable record of opposition to tax hikes that we can safely dismiss that disturbing notion.

  4. Post
    Author

    Thank you for the feedback.

    @Erica…Yep, I was a young and green once, and I was overworked a time or two. 😉

    I was fortunate to work with really solid editors at every paper I worked at. One of the lessons they taught me: It’s okay to take the bait…just be sure to mix in some balance/perspective so the end product is fair.

    Tony

  5. Tony, excellent post. Damn, I miss having you at the Union-Tribune. Thank God for Rostra.

    Beyond the scare tactics, I can think of at least two good follow-up stories about the City of San Diego’s libraries. The County of San Diego’s library system seems to be flourishing. It’s not cutting hours. It’s building new branches. Is this true, and if so, why? Might it have something to do with the fact the County doesn’t maintain a pricy central library?

    The other topic is one of my favorites, and also a topic often discussed by fellow Rostra columnist Richard Rider: privatization of libraries. I’ve advocated this for so long I’m no longer bothered by being accused of snatching books from the hands of children and barring them from the opportunity to learn to read. Is it time to get serious about looking into this option?

  6. @Tony: Of course and time allows for wisdom to flourish.

    @Gayle: It took the County roughly a decade to turn around its finances from about where the City sits today on the fiscal dial. Budgetary creativity came into play there with outsourcing, managed competition and reverse engineering.

    Those budgeting decisions include public private partnerships, which help deliver program-heavy government services while keeping costs manageable. All those decisions leave breathing room in the budget for library services and those pesky grants fund what the general fund can’t.

    Cities, such as Del Mar and Encinitas, partner with the County for some of the best programs and facilities in the region.

    Fallbrook recently, after a decade of applying for and getting denied state grants, opened its new, expanded GREEN County library to a grateful community. Best part – it was paid for with cash: http://www.youtube.com/countysandiego#p/u/0/ynejr3oA5mc

    Libraries often get dismissed today as a dying community relic where books collect dusk. It’s better to characterize them as modern-day Learning Centers.

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