Brownstein: San Jose mayor’s impossible budget plan abdicates leadership
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan wants to allocate millions from Measure E toward homeless interim housing and services. Affordable housing allocations would be diminished. File photo.

    In his first budget message, Mayor Matt Mahan claims he is approaching the city’s financial map in a new way. That’s true—but not in the way Mayor Mahan suggests.

    Confronting a weak tax base, Mahan states he will be an agent of change—concentrating on the basics and being disciplined in focusing resources on top priorities. In fact, since 1979 every San Jose mayor has had to face an inadequate tax base and often face much more serious fiscal challenges than those with which Mahan will have to cope. Yet they all initiated and emphasized specific strategic priorities.

    What is truly new about Mahan’s approach is the undisciplined way in which he proposes expenditures whose costs will be well beyond the most optimistic revenue projections and become a drag on city finances for years. Then, he removes mayoral leadership from solving the problem his fiscally unbalanced message creates. Instead he delegates the entire challenge of establishing realistic priorities from his “promise the moon” budget to the city manager.

    Let’s examine just a few of the Mahan’s proposals—to be applied to a budget which he acknowledges starts off $15 million short of maintaining the services the city provided as recently as last year (after federal support has ended) and may have larger shortfalls if the recession deepens:

    • Adding 30 more police personnel at an ongoing cost of over $12 million.
    • Building 1,500 additional interim housing units which if ever completed would cost the city tens of millions to construct and around $60 million annually to operate after that.
    • Calls for a city-financed secure psychiatric facility could bleed hundreds of millions more from our general fund. For comparison, the county’s new 77-bed mental health hospital is estimated to cost over $420 million.

    Add in an open-ended call for costly new “back to basics” infrastructure projects with no realistic funding source to be named and you start to get the idea. San Jose cannot afford all of these programs—no matter how praiseworthy or questionable.

    Setting pragmatic priorities and directly working for their implementation is how previous San Jose mayors earned their pay. Tom McEnery championed the effort to build the SAP Center. Susan Hammer personally designed the Mayor’s Gang Task Force, now known as the Youth Empowerment Alliance, and negotiated the joint city and SJSU Martin Luther King Library. Ron Gonzales spearheaded efforts to pass parks, library, and public safety bonds and established the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative. Sam Liccardo led the Measure F campaign that cleaned up the wreckage from Chuck Reed’s unlawful and counterproductive pension initiatives.

    Mayor Mahan, on the other hand, has released a budget message which reads more like a campaign platform than a governance agenda, and is assigning the tough work of being mayor to the city manager. It is unreasonable to expect even a dedicated and experienced but unelected manager to set these city priorities in a manner that represents the diversity of San Jose’s population. The city council and community representatives need to step up and work with the city manager to accomplish what Mayor Mahan is either unwilling or incapable of doing.

    Together we can develop priorities that recognize the multiple objectives that are legitimate components of a San Jose budget for all. We have to be realistic and make trade-offs. We have to make tough decisions that leave the majority of San Jose’s working families better off in the long run. We have to commit to doing the work that makes these goals feasible.

    As community members, we should state clearly: We live, work and raise families in San Jose. We’re ready to have the tough conversations, and make the compromises it takes to build a city in which each of us, regardless of our occupation or ZIP code, has what we need to prosper. The mayor has backed away from the challenge, but we can and will be part of the solution.

    Bob Brownstein served as the budget director for former San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer (1991-1998) and is a strategic advisor for Working Partnerships USA.

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