Waite: San Jose budget should focus on core services
An aerial view of downtown San Jose is pictured in this file photo.

Proving yet again that government spending is “sticky downward” and all new programs should be reviewed skeptically, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo opens his March budget message by lamenting, “If we wished merely to maintain the level of services we currently provide San Jose residents into the next year, we would commence our budget decision-making in a nearly $100 million hole.”

Never mind that the hole of which he speaks is due to pandemic-related services that ought to be drastically reduced as the two-year crisis abates. The services that “require a new allocation in future years, or the services will go away” are outside the scope of both the city’s charter and the core services our community deserves.

Specifically, the mayor cites food distribution services and broadband internet access for the community as imperiled by a lack of funding availability. Mayor Liccardo notes “at the county’s request, the city assumed leadership of the effort to fund and coordinate food and necessities distribution to residents and families across the county.”

Here’s a thought: push the food distribution services back to the county, who bears the responsibility for such services, or demand that the county adequately reimburse the city to continue the services. As for broadband services, open our libraries, where broadband services are available to the community as a matter of course.

Founded in 2011, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility (CFR) advocates on behalf of San Jose residents and seeks to be a positive force for fiscal responsibility in our city.

For the past couple of years, CFR has remained quiet about our city’s budget, believing it was appropriate for government entities to temporarily expand beyond the delivery of core services while addressing the needs of the community during the pandemic—although how much of the need was created by potentially overzealous attempts to halt the spread of the virus is yet unknown. We believe that now, as our lives return to “normal,” our governments should once again focus on core service delivery.

The good news is Mayor Liccardo, after bemoaning the tragedy of being forced to cut spending, lays out a reasonable framework for developing the 2022-23 budget. Although CFR takes issue with the order implied by the seven numbered priorities, we appreciate they are clearly identified and focused primarily on core services.

The mayor focuses spending on actions that address residents’ concerns with homelessness, public safety and blight. He directs Measure E funds to activities that should help reduce the number of unhoused residents, recognizing that fixing the issues causing homelessness is not found in a one-size-fits-all solution. He advocates continued expansion of the understaffed San Jose Police Department, while recognizing the need to address issues with how public safety is ensured. He pushes exploring and supporting programs that improve our city’s resiliency along several dimensions. Mayor Liccardo asks the city manager to continue making long-overdue investments in East San Jose.

The mayor points out that “a transit connector to the Mineta San Jose International Airport has been a long-sought but inadequately funded ambition of our city for more than two decades.” While CFR has taken no position on the need for such a connection, we have one suggested funding source should the community feel the project is warranted.

Mayor Liccardo should ask VTA to end the folly of extending light rail to Eastridge. The extension is far too expensive based on the cost per passenger mile traveled and will cause an unacceptable worsening of automobile traffic along the Capitol Expressway corridor, both during construction and thereafter. Ending the project would free up roughly $500 million for the transit connection between the airport and downtown.

Finally, Mayor Liccardo indicates the hard work of reforming San Jose’s pension system seems to be paying off. Thanks to various ballot measures, employee concessions and an incredibly long bull market, combined with an enormous increase in pension funding, the unfunded pension obligation of over $3 billion is starting to decline. Over time, this will free up general fund dollars to devote to improving the quality and quantity of core services that our residents deserve.

CFR commends and thanks the many people inside and outside of city government for their efforts.

Pat Waite is president of Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility.

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