Issue of Increasing Staff Budget Puts Council on Spot

BARRY M. HORSTMAN, TIMES STAFF WRITER

With severe budget constraints forming a politically unattractive backdrop, the San Diego City Council is scheduled to decide today whether to increase spending for a majority of its own members' staffs and related costs by more than $300,000.

Making that already sensitive topic even more so, City Manager John Lockwood has told the council that, in order to meet the staffing and other requests--which would raise the council's budget by nearly 10%--money for a new police substation would have to be delayed or other existing city programs cut.

Faced with those unpopular choices, some of the six council members seeking to increase their office budgets have charged, somewhat defensively, that political gamesmanship has unnecessarily heightened the stakes over what they regard as a modest request needed primarily to provide effective constituent service.

In particular, some suggest that Lockwood, perhaps taking his cues from Mayor Maureen O'Connor's disdain for raising the council's $3.1-million staff budget, has deliberately boxed the members in a politically embarrassing corner, forcing them to choose between more police or bigger personal staffs. Although Lockwood and the mayor's aides dispute that characterization, some council members question why their request was lumped together for consideration today with a handful of more costly proposals--notably, $3.5 million in potential legal expenses.

"Somebody's playing games, as far as I can see," said Councilman John Hartley, who hopes to hire one more aide. "It seems a little funny that the only way to do this is to cut police. It just looks like one of those typical budget games people play."

But Lockwood, insisting that he is not "scheming . . . to make anyone look bad," describes the council's dilemma as being illustrative of "the tough choices that have to be made when there aren't any easy ones left."

The only revenue now available for the additional council staff and related expenses--including the remodeling of the two newest council members' offices--is the city's so-called unallocated reserve, Lockwood explained. Totaling only $1 million in the city's $956.5-million fiscal 1990 budget, the reserve has already been reduced by half by earlier funding requests.

"I have requests for upwards of $4 million and have only $500,000 left," Lockwood said. "Something has to give. The council needs to make a decision. And, if it wants to fund all of these things, I have to identify a revenue source."

The tensions and suspicions underlying today's debate are indicative of the political delicacy that usually surrounds public officials' office budgets. Indeed, next to matters affecting their own salaries--an even more controversial subject--there are few matters that politicians prefer to discuss less than the size and cost of their staffs.

Admittedly, the $304,200 increase being sought--which includes $118,000 in staff costs and an estimated $122,000 for the remodeling and furnishing of the offices of council newcomers Hartley and Linda Bernhardt--is minuscule contrasted with the city's overall budget. The council members recognize, however, that even a small increase in their own budgets sends the wrong signal, symbolically if not economically, to the public at a time when fiscal limitations have curtailed city services and prompted serious consideration of new taxes.

Moreover, the budget requests run counter to widespread expectations that last year's shift to district elections--which narrowed council members' jurisdiction to one-eighth of the city--might reduce the council's budget.

For those and other reasons, probably the only ones on the council dais who will not be squirming uncomfortably when the topic comes up today will be O'Connor and the two members who have not requested additional staff funds--Ron Roberts and Judy McCarty.

Five other council members--Hartley, Abbe Wolfsheimer, Wes Pratt, Bruce Henderson and Bob Filner--have each asked for amounts ranging from $8,500 to $25,000 to hire one extra staffer, and Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt is seeking $26,800 to pay for two positions that she has already filled. Without the additional money--needed to pay the two aides' salaries through June 30, the end of the city's current fiscal year--one or both of those aides would have to be laid off, Bernhardt said.

Because those requests come with less than five months remaining in fiscal 1990--and, therefore, represent less than half of an annual salary--they would, if approved, set the stage for presumably bigger staff cost increases next year. Most council offices now have six or seven staffers, with the members' annual budgets ranging from a low of $307,362 in Wolfsheimer's 1st District to Filner's $358,490 8th District allotment.

Like the other council members seeking an increase, Bernhardt feels that her staffing request is being subjected to unduly harsh scrutiny because of the manner in which it was linked--unfairly, she argues--to the city's budget crisis in general and the police issue in particular in a report that Lockwood sent to the council last week. Moreover, Bernhardt stressed that, following her defeat of former 5th District Councilman Ed Struiksma last November, she received authorization from the city manager's office to fill the two positions.

"When I came on the council, I was told that the money was there, that it would be no problem," Bernhardt said. "And now they're trying to make it out like this would come at the expense of police? Uh-uh. I don't think we're going to play that game today, guys. If they want to do that, I'll suggest we reopen the whole budget to look for other options."

Bernhardt and Hartley account for more than two-thirds of the overall council budget-increase request, though, in fairness to them, that is largely because of some expenses that usually occur after a turnover on the council. The estimated $122,000 remodeling bill, for example, covers the expense of reconfiguring their offices to their satisfaction, as well as the cost of new furniture, rugs and wallpaper.

"When we got here, the wallpaper was ripped and the seams on the rugs showed," Bernhardt said. "I was almost embarrassed to have people come in here for meetings."

The two council newcomers also are seeking more than $55,000 in "transitional expenses" to purchase office supplies and pay other related office expenses. Bernhardt's share of that money is $28,000; Hartley's is listed in Lockwood's report as totaling $35,400, but Hartley aide Raquel Beltran said that figure includes $8,500 being sought to hire an additional receptionist.

Hartley had an especially urgent need for the additional funds because his predecessor, Gloria McColl, inadvertently neglected to include certain non-personnel costs in the budget that she prepared last summer and Hartley inherited after defeating her. Skeptical of whether McColl's omission was, in fact, an oversight, Hartley--who suspects it may have been a conscious effort to reduce staff costs in an election year--found himself "pretty much on empty" when he took office.

"The funds in that office were deficient for that or any other district," agreed Patricia Frazier, director of the city's Financial Management Department. Similarly, Bernhardt complained that "we couldn't find a pen or paper" when she took over Struiksma's old office.

The "transitional" funds also cover costs associated with paying off McColl's and Struiksma's former staffers for their accrued vacation time--expenses technically listed on their successors' budgets.

Historically, council members have been reluctant to intrude in their colleagues' internal office affairs. That may not be the case today, however, because of Lockwood's framing of the issue as a cops-versus-staff question in which a bigger council budget could delay land acquisition for a police substation in Pratt's 4th District. Another factor that could figure prominently in the debate is the concern of the members not seeking budget increases that they might encounter public criticism regardless.

"This might be a case where the public blames the council as a whole," Roberts said. "We need to ask ourselves whether spending this money this way does more for the city than maybe restoring some other services. To me, it's a move in the wrong direction."

Paul Downey, O'Connor's press secretary, added that some San Diegans might interpret the move as an effort by some council members to "pad their staffs to protect against possible future cuts" in the event that voters approve a two-seat council expansion in June. If that ballot proposition is approved, O'Connor has proposed that the expansion be accomplished within the existing council budget--a plan that would force current members to scale back their own offices to fund the new members' staffs.

Defending the proposed increases, some council members and their aides contend that district elections not only did not reduce their responsibilities, but in fact increased demands from constituents.

"You still have to make decisions on citywide issues, and, with the greater focus on districts, people want more service than ever before," said Bernhardt aide Chris Crotty.

Roberts, however, said there has been "no noticeable difference" in requests to his office since voters approved the establishment of district elections in November, 1988.

"You don't have to be a genius at math to wonder why you'd need more staff to deal with one-eighth of what you used to--and one-tenth if the council is expanded," Downey added. "The question is, do people in the neighborhoods want to put more staff on the 10th floor of City Hall, or do they want more police on the streets?"

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