Fire pits a smoldering issue in San Diego

Standing beside one of those concrete icons of the beach-oriented lifestyle here, Mayor Jerry Sanders announced Monday that the civic scare about the imminent removal of fire pits has been averted — at least for now.

Enough money — $120,500 — has been scraped together from private and public sources to keep the city’s 186 fire pits burning for the next year, Sanders said. “Fire pits have an impassioned audience,” he said.

The pits, pending an OK from the California Coastal Commission, had been slated for removal as a money-saving measure.

When Sanders last year — for the second year — placed the fire pits on a list of budget cuts, a “save our fire pits” website was formed by beach-lovers. This is San Diego, where fire-pit politics are passionate yet parsimonious.

Thousands signed a petition, but a public fundraising drive (“adopt a fire pit”) largely flopped. Only $2,896 was generated.

“If everyone who loved the fire pits contributed $5, the fund would have been overflowing,” Sanders said.

Again, this is San Diego, where decent civic services are seen as a birthright — but not at the price of actually paying for them, according to a trio of academics preparing a book, “Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Growth Challenges in San Diego.”

“We have a permanent fiscal crisis in this town,” said the lead author, Steve Erie, a professor of political science at UC San Diego. “After Proposition 13, every other big city, with a wink and a nod, found new revenue, but not San Diego.”

San Diego, for example, remains virtually alone among large cities in not charging a fee for picking up trash from single-family homes. The city also has no utility tax.

Like many cities, San Diego has a budget out of whack from growing pension payments and a weak economy. Unwilling to buck the local anti-tax zeitgeist, Sanders had employed a strategy of trim, cut and squeeze, along with hiring freezes and hardball negotiations with labor unions.

Most cutbacks in city services — closure of community centers, reduction in library hours, elimination of the Police Department’s horse patrol — have been met with little opposition. San Diegans drew the line (in the sand) at fire pits.

“San Diego wouldn’t be San Diego without being able to go to the beach for a bonfire,” said Frank Gormlie, editor of the OB Rag, a online community news source in Ocean Beach.

In La Jolla, San Diego’s priciest neighborhood, community leaders raised $4,700 to maintain the seven pits on the beach at La Jolla Shores. But City Hall said that either all the pits had to be saved or none at all, which put pressure on Sanders to find an all-encompassing solution.

When Sanders first proposed removing the fire pits, a beach-loving sugar daddy volunteered to pay a year’s worth of costs. That gift was set to expire soon, and the donor, whose identity is a closely held secret, was reportedly tapped out.

The largest share of this year’s money, $90,000, comes from the San Diego Foundation, long a leader in charitable causes. Other contributions: $4,700 from the La Jolla Community Foundation, $2,896 from the fire-pit fund, $6,452 from the budget of Councilwoman Sherri Lightner, and $16,452 from the budget of Councilman Kevin Faulconer.

Faulconer, who has 102 of the pits in his district, said he hopes a long-term solution is found so the city can move away from its a la carte approach to budgeting.

San Diegans should not be left “wondering every year if the fire pits are on the chopping block,” he said.