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In San Diego, financial free fall -- and freedom

For the skateboarders at Robb Field Skate Park in Ocean Beach, the financial crisis gripping the state’s second-largest city has meant freedom.

Freedom not to pay $5 to zoom up and down the concrete swells. Freedom not to wear helmets at the risk of cracking their heads. Freedom to smoke while they skate, drink beer, bring dogs, ride minibikes amid the skateboards and scrawl graffiti -- all of which was noted last week by a visitor.

Starting Jan. 2, San Diego decided it could no longer afford to assign Park and Recreation Department employees to supervise the city’s five skate parks.

Instead, signs were posted listing seven rules -- rules the skateboarders are breaking without remorse.

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“Helmets are bummers,” said helmet-less Elliot Hathaway, 22, an employee of a metal-fabricating business.

When he heard that the skate park not only was free but minus supervision, John Wright, 25, a waiter at a Gaslamp District restaurant, rode his bike five miles from his apartment in Pacific Beach.

“I know these rules are for our own good, but rules are just against the whole spirit of skateboarding,” he said. “Plus, the whole idea of paying to skateboard is wrong.”

They probably don’t realize it, but the skateboarders fit firmly within the local political zeitgeist, which holds that government services should be free or low-cost, even at the risk of public safety.

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This, after all, is the city where chronic underfunding of the Fire Department was seen as contributing to the destruction of hundreds of homes in the 2003 Cedar fire. The Police Department has fewer officers per capita than almost every big-city department in the country.

But it is also the city that is firmly anti-taxation and where, for example, single-family homes do not pay separately for garbage collection, thanks to a law passed in 1919.

Now the nation’s economic free fall may force the City Council, including newly elected members, to decide whether San Diego should change its fiscal ways or substantially slash services.

In November, Mayor Jerry Sanders tried shock therapy. Warning of a $43-million operating deficit, he proposed closing seven branch libraries and nine recreation centers, trimming the fire-rescue crews at 12 stations and reducing the fire and police academy classes, which would mean even fewer officers and firefighters as retirements thin the ranks.

The City Council cut some jobs, ended supervision at the skate parks and approved removing the fire rings at city beaches but delayed decisions involving libraries, recreation centers and other services.

An anonymous benefactor provided enough money to keep the fire rings in place for 18 months. So far, no sugar daddy has offered to pay for skate-park supervisors.

Andrea Tevlin, the City Council’s budget analyst, said that while other cities occasionally run a deficit because of an economic downturn or a local calamity, San Diego has a “persistent structural deficit” because of the gap between the citizenry’s desire for services and its distaste for taxation.

She said the city has made fiscal progress through pension reform for new employees, healthcare reform and consolidation of some departments, but “much, much more needs to be done.”

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As for pulling supervisors from the skate parks, Tevlin said she fought the idea when it was first proposed, fearing that injuries would lead to lawsuits. “From a liability standpoint, it’s crazy,” she said. “But when you get down to choosing this or that to cut, something has to go.” (The city attorney’s office disagrees with Tevlin on liability, saying that skateboarders assume a risk when they use the parks.)

On Wednesday, in his annual State of the City address, Sanders is expected to again warn about the growing budget problem, caused by a pension fund deficit, a reduction in state allocations and the recession.

The question at City Hall is whether Sanders, a Republican, will suggest a tax increase. In the past he’s championed the idea of cutting the budget by outsourcing services and bargaining hard with city labor unions.

One new council member is willing to consider asking voters to repeal the 1919 ordinance. That may not sound radical -- but in San Diego, even suggesting such a move quickly brings the wrath of the local newspaper’s editorial page.

During the recent election season, the Union-Tribune slammed Marti Emerald on three occasions over her trash-ordinance apostasy. In one piece, the editorialists referred to her as an “acerbic former TV personality.”

Acerbic or not, Emerald, a former crusading consumer reporter for the ABC affiliate, was elected. Now she’s on the budget committee. Estimates suggest that a mid-range trash fee would raise $37 million to $50 million a year.

“It’s kind of a no-brainer,” Emerald said. “Ask the average person on the street, and they have no problem with maybe a $10-a-month charge to help cover a $37-million deficit. It’s a couple of lattes.”

At Robb Field, the idea of the city finding money to restore the Park and Recreation staff is met mostly with groans. Except for Michelle Kendleton, who was there last week supervising her helmet-wearing son Kyle, 9.

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“This is madness,” she said as she watched skateboarders two and three times her son’s age zoom by without regard for the newly posted rules.

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tony.perry@latimes.com


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