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Limit Wisely Dropped

The City Council made a wise--perhaps inevitable--decision last week when it voted to scrap Proposition J, an amendment to the City Charter passed by the voters in a fit of tax-saving passion just months after Proposition 13 was approved in a statewide landslide.

The impetus for the council’s 6-3 vote to repeal the 1978 spending limit was its desire to hire 107 additional police officers. City Manager Ray Blair had told the council that hiring that many officers would require cutting other services or waiving the Proposition J restrictions, which limited growth in the city budget to three-fourths of the inflation rate plus the percentage change in the population.

The council was legally able to abandon the limit because City Atty. John W. Witt had earlier ruled that it was superseded by the statewide Gann initiative approved by the voters in 1979. But even after Witt’s ruling, the council had kept Proposition J’s provisions as city policy.

In repealing the spending limit, the council freed itself from a vise that was inexorably squeezing city services and programs. Since the city’s spending was not allowed to keep pace with the inflation rate, even in times of moderate inflation such as these it was becoming harder to maintain services at a constant level. Had the inflation rate averaged 10% a year, city financial planners estimated services would have been trimmed in half by the year 2009.

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The council has not given itself a blank check by repealing Proposition J. The Gann initiative, which applies throughout California, still limits local spending to the inflation rate.

But the council should learn an important lesson from this experience. Back in 1978, cutting government spending was at the top of the political agenda in California, and groups ranging from the Urban League to the San Diego Taxpayers Assn. to the Chamber of Commerce endorsed Proposition J without thinking of how it would tie the hands of future councils.

Today’s City Council needs to avoid making a similar mistake by setting unrealistic goals for the number of police officers that should be hired in coming years. After disposing of Proposition J, the council voted--as it should have--to add 107 officers to the force. It also voted unanimously to set a goal of hiring enough officers over the next five years or so until a ratio of two sworn officers to every 1,000 residents has been achieved. The ratio is now about 1.5 per 1,000.

According to city financial planners, it will cost $50 million over the next five years to attain the desired ratio of officers to residents. After that, it will take $33.8 million a year in personnel costs alone to keep them. That does not account for the increase in police stations, cars and other equipment that would be required.

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Few would quarrel with the need to hire more officers. But it would be wrong for the City Councils of the 1980s to so obligate their successors that other needs cannot be met.


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