Union-Tribune’s Ghoulish News Article Promotes Sales Tax Hike — UPDATED

Bradley J. Fikes Bradley J. Fikes 7 Comments

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“Tragedy renews sales-tax debate” reads the story’s headline. “Union Tribune renews sales-tax debate by campaigning on corpse of toddler” would have been more accurate.

The A-1 article linked the tragic death of 2-year-old Bentley Do to “brownouts” in public safety service, brownouts it said would be fixed with a 5-year sales tax hike for residents of the city of San Diego. The rate would go from 8.75 cents on the dollar to 9.25 cents.

That reasoning is dubious, if not outright specious. The brownouts are imposed by city officials, who have spent time on higher priorities, such as lobbying for various mega-projects such as a new City Hall, the “schoolbrary,” a convention center expansion, etc. Meanwhile, the city’s pension debt keeps climbing. This lack of prudent financial oversight drove the city into the financial mess it is struggling to climb out of.

Raising taxes lessens fiscal discipline, which the city appeared to be belatedly acquiring after suffering from foolish and inept government. As a native San Diegan (I live in Allied Gardens, one mile from where I grew up), I don’t want to see the city fall into that trap again.

When governments find themselves in a financial squeeze, they are supposed to set priorities. Public safety is supposed to be government’s highest priority. Was it really impossible for the city of San Diego to cut its budget elsewhere on non-public safety items to keep the fire stations fully functional? Or was it politically impossible, because some City Hall politicians have an edifice complex?

Also importantly, would the sales tax hike money have prevented Bentley Do’s death — the putative reason for the article? As the Union-Tribune article itself conceded, “it’s impossible to know whether Bentley would have survived had paramedics arrived sooner,” but that didn’t stop the Union-Tribune’s editors from making the link.

I say “editors,” because they (or perhaps their superiors) are responsible. As a wise old former editor of mine liked to say, “Reporters don’t put stories in the paper. Editors do.”

Sales tax hike advocates were crushed when Mayor Jerry Sanders abandoned his rumored effort to lobby for the half-cent hike. It would appear that so was the Union-Tribune’s new management. I expected better from them.

Fortunately, judging by the hundreds of comments left on the story, the public is not swayed by this emotional pitch. Comments run overwhelmingly against the proposed sales tax hike.

The Union-Tribune should stop using supposedly “objective” news stories to lobby for its pet projects. It should place opinions where they belong, on the opinion page and blogs like this one. And get rid of the not-so-hidden agendas.

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UPDATE: Saturday, 8 a.m.
Voice of San Diego takes a less biased look at the sales tax hike proposal in the context of Bentley Do’s death.

However, I think the VOSD article is flawed by accepting the premise that there is any connection between raising the sales tax and ending the brownouts. That is the argument made by the sales tax hike supporters. Although neutrally worded, the VOSD article appears to be written from the viewpoint of city government officials, who generally favor the tax hike.

Donna Frye, a consistently honest councilmember, made this interesting comment in the VOSD article:

Interest groups will tie the City Hall vote to a tax increase, Frye said. They’ll do the same with the city’s recent decision to build a $185 million new main library. Voters are less likely, she implied, to support a tax increase if they think it’s going toward big buildings.

“Whether we like them or not those are the big elephants in the room right now,” Frye said.

Frye is exactly right. However, her characterization of opponents as interest groups needs to be challenged. (If the indirect quote by VOSD properly described the characterization, I should add.)

That rather disparaging reference to “interest groups” can also be applied to supporters of raising the sales tax. The article would have been better had it brought in a voice from outside the City Hall tax-and-spend complex to make that point.

Elsewhere, the local Tea Party folks are as disgusted as I am with the City Hall politicians and the Union-Tribune’s blatant push for a higher sales tax in an “objective” news article. From Temple of Mut:

I grieve for the loss of Bentley Do, and my prayers go for his spirit and my sympathies to his family. However, the assertion that we San Diegans are not paying enough in taxes for proper emergency services is contemptible, cynical, atrocious, and insulting. What we need is pension reform, enhanced efficiencies, and curtailing the bureaucratic waste in this city.

My fellow San Diegans — are we to be guilt-tripped by this accident into feeding more money to the government beast? Once again, “the children” are being used an an excuse to take more control of our lives.

Imagine if our city leaders showed so much aggressive initiative and imagination in actually resolving the city’s fiscal problems!

And from B-Daddy at The Liberator Today:

Local governments have a long history of reducing vital services when faced with tax revolts. Now that we have an active tea party movement, we won’t let them get away with this.

UPDATE: Saturday, 4:25 p.m

Voice of San Diego posted a helpful explainer about what would happen with the money from a sales tax hike in the City of San Diego: Whatever the city wants:

“If voters approve the sales tax measure as proposed, the money raised simply would flow into the city’s day-to-day operating budget, or general fund. That means the money could be used for everything the city’s general fund pays for including police and fire services, employee pensions and the new Civic Center as it’s currently planned. Certain departments, such as water and sewer, are excluded from the general fund and wouldn’t get any of the money.”

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As with everything I write here, this article is my opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the views of my employer, the North County Times.

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Comments 7

  1. Post
    Author

    Thank you. The truth is indeed rough, but somebody had to say it. The template was laid out in Friday’s U-T on A-1. But on the bright side, we have more diverse news sources in San Diego than ever before, such as Voice of San Diego.

    It will be interesting to see how the Union-Tribune treats Monday’s press conference. Since at least one U-T reporter is tired of hearing from the usual suspects, maybe the business owners will get some attention.

  2. I just read the U-T article, which includes the timeline from the time the call was made until the time the little boy was trasported via ambulance. I apologize if my response veers off the topic of the media pushing for pet projects (I agree with your analysis, by the way).

    Admittedly, I am not familiar with typical response times and processes. Based on the data provided, emergency personnel (police) were en route within 2 minutes of the 911 call and arrived within 6 minutes. Further, the victim was being transported via ambulance within 14 minutes of the call. Again, I am not familiar with emergency response times and procedures, and do not want to appear callous, nevertheless to me this seems a tragic accident to a little boy, and I am unclear if there truly would have been a different outcome if, following these procedures, the boy would have been in the ambulance any earlier?

    From the U-T article…

    Tuesday’s Emergency call timeline

    8:28 p.m. — 911 call made.

    8:29 — Call entered into dispatch system. Uncle reports boy is choking on gum ball. Lots of screaming in background.

    8:30 — Officers en route to scene.

    8:33 — Fire dispatcher on the line asks for Vietnamese translator.

    8:34 — Two officers arrive. Report boy is not breathing. Begin CPR.

    8:36 — Officer asks that medics expedite.

    8:39 — Firefighters arrive.

    8:41 — Officer and boy in the back of the ambulance.

    8:42 — Ambulance heads for hospital.

    SOURCE: San Diego police

  3. Post
    Author

    D7,
    Thank you. Hypotheticals can be devilishly hard to parse. So I would take a different tack. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the child would have lived were it not for the service brownout, and that this was not just a one-time accident, but likely to be repeated.

    In that case, the cutbacks are a public safety danger. And since public safety is supposed to be government’s highest priority, it’s worth looking into what else in the city budget could have been cut instead. San Diego has a notorious history of financial profligacy on non-essential items, such as budget-busting pensions. We didn’t get named Enron-by-the-Sea for nothing. So I’d suggest a hard look into how the city budget could have been reallocated, complete with questions about whether city government has been distracted from its basic duties by the building spree the city and mayor are contemplating. Have we really learned the lessons from our financial catastrophe, or are the politicians back to their old ways?

    I’d also look at less expensive alternatives, such as extending basic emergency training so there are skilled members of the public throughout the community who can help in such situations. I’m sure that’s being done already, but could it be stepped up?

    Raising taxes is the path of least resistance for governments. And tragedies such as Bentley Do’s death are easy to demagogue for higher taxes. So failures of government can be perversely rewarded by giving government more money. Responsible news coverage should push back against this demagogy — not encourage it.

  4. Bradley,

    Your scenario of local government focusing on its top priority of public safety would be a dream come true.

    The reform vs. revenue debate is quickly getting old, with each side throwing out sound bites and digging their heels in. They either are protecting the “special interests” Donna Frye alludes to or are trying to make a name for themselves with an eye on re-election or higher office. All this occurs with no resolution in sight, and at the expense of the seemingly bottomless wallet of the taxpayers. We citizens are really tired of the B.S., and it is exactly why approval ratings of elected officials and bureaucrats are in the toilet and continue to sink.

    When Susan Golding was Mayor she convened a panel of business leaders that studied the city budget to identify opportunities for cost savings. They identified many chances for reform, from recommending zero-based budgeting and ending transfers from water to general fund, to implementing efficiencies in fleet vehicle maintenance, purchasing and much more. The suggested savings were significant. We are now two mayoral administrations down the line. I wonder how many of the suggested reforms have been implemented.

    Government continually pisses money away because there is no accountability. Yeah, elections are supposed to be our chance to vote the bums out, but politicians and their slick consultants (sorry to all my friends on Rostra reading this…nothing personal) know how to spin their way to reelection while using the power of incumbency to raise funds and blow opponents out of the water. And then you have the bureaucrats – more interested in keeping the paychecks coming and building their retirement funds than implementing any reform that could make their workday harder or jeopardize their position – who have figured out how to work around elected officials, who they know will be gone in a few years anyway.

    In the private sector, your services or products need to be competitive in the market. If not you soon will be out of business. You cannot keep charging your customers more and more while delivering less and less. Further, times change and business adapts. Layoffs and manpower reductions are an unfortunate but real part of life. Not just eliminating unfilled positions. I’ve been laid off. I’ve also had to lay off employees. I’m sure you know plenty of friends in the newspaper business who have been affected. It sucks but it is life.

    Government seems stuck in a time warp, totally disconnected from the real world. They don’t want to adapt and they don’t want to make the painful decisions necessary to survive. At the City, I still believe there are huge layers of fat between the decision-makers and those doing the actual work. If you’re willing to walk into a burning building or chase an armed murder or rapist then you deserve to be compensated appropriately. I’m not so sure about the six layers of directors and deputy directors along with their assistants and deputy deputies.

    I could keep going on but I’d end up writing a book.

  5. Belatedly the city is considering operating with three man fire truck crews. Poway does that now, as, I suspect, do some other SoCal cities. Given that about six out of seven emergency fire department calls are MEDICAL, not fires, this makes good sense.

    To put it bluntly, the city council’s policies — refusing to implement fiscal and operational reforms — and not making public safety the top city priority — might very well have killed that toddler.

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