San Jose’s Budget: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

By Pete Constant

The City of San Jose’s budget has been the center of conversation for quite some time now. Worry and frustration has turned to happiness and accomplishment. But before we break our arms patting ourselves on the back, I think we ought to evaluate the good in the context of the bad — and the ugly.

The Good

We have a balanced budget, on time.

This represents a significant accomplishment given that the San Jose, like most governments, faces some serious financial issues.

Most importantly, this budget preserves critical public safety services by restoring the Park Rangers, the Horse Mounted Unit, a Traffic Enforcement Team, police patrol staffing, the Crime Prevention Unit, and staffing for two fire stations that were slated for closure. These are all essential city services that the public relies on and deserves.

The Bad

This year’s $85 million deficit comes on the heels of seven years of deficits, bringing the cumulative shortfall to $425 million. Deferred infrastructure repairs and improvements have an estimated value of over $800 million – not counting the needs of our city and regional parks. Then there are the other long-term liabilities like City Hall debt service, unfunded retirement, and health care liabilities.

Unfortunately, there seems to be no end to the bad news. Sales tax revenues have fallen far below estimates. Property tax revenues continue to fall. The state is looking to take and borrow money from cities in an attempt to balance their budget. There is no way to predict if all of this will wreak havoc our newly-balanced budget. Surely, we will be back to the balancing act in just a few short months.

The Ugly

We have a budget system that is "broke" — and there doesn’t seem to be a will to fix it.

San Jose’s budget process is clearly in conflict with the needs of the general public. Time after time, survey after survey, email after email, the residents of San Jose have made it clear: Public safety is their number one priority. Yet our process brought a proposed budget to the council that contained draconian cuts to public safety.

CPR classes were slated for elimination, saving $55,000, while marketing for the Mariachi Festival was added, at a cost of $50,000. This is just one example of bureaucratic priorities out of sync with the priorities of our residents.

In San Jose, it seems, all budget dollars are equal. A dollar for advertising is equal to a dollar for training that can save someone’s life. A dollar for buying refreshments at a community meeting is equal to a dollar for crime prevention.

I think this is wrong! I hope you do, too.

As the council voted to pass the budget, I pleaded with my colleagues to change the process. I urged that we categorize spending into four simple categories: things we must do, things we should do, things we would like to do, and, of course, things we should not do.

Once we do that, we must prioritize spending. Fully fund the things we must do, then fund the things we should do, and then — if the money’s available — start to fund the things we would like to do. And by all means, we need to shy away from things that have nothing to do with the responsibilities of local government.

Only then will we give our residents the essential public safety services they deserve, provide the infrastructure we need, and meet our obligations to our employees.

Pete Constant is in his first term on the San Jose City Council representing District 1 (West San Jose).