San Diego Union-Tribune Ignores Severity of San Diego’s Budget Deficit

Written by Richard Rider, Chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters

Once again, The San Diego Union-Tribune reporters failed to look skeptically at false government projections. In this case, the City of San Diego grandly released its “Fiscal Year 2021-2025 Five Year Financial Outlook.”

While the report admits that, as it stands, there are annual budget shortfalls, it foresees this shortfall declining each year until 2025, when the city bureaucrats project a surplus—with no tax increases. Absolute poppycock. Granted, the report is full of cautionary notes and caveats. The likely chance of a recession is mentioned, but that adverse effect is not included in the outlook.

All such projections should include such disclosures of uncertainties. No multi-year “outlook” is going to be accurate, but it should be a “best efforts” outlook. A worthwhile prediction should state the range of possible outcomes, with the numbers to match.

It turns out that this Pollyannaish projection will be very, very wrong. By a lot. That’s because the report’s authors are either incredibly incompetent, or they are lying (I suspect the latter is the more likely explanation). I guarantee that it’s wrong. The projection understates the city outlays by at least $100,000,000 annually by 2025.

There are many problems with this city analysis, but let’s focus on one huge misrepresentation.

Looking at the city’s 67-page analysis, let’s concentrate on the report’s one-page chart (on page 6) summarizing this absurdly optimistic “outlook.”

In the U-T story, the city politicians boast that they plan to hire more police, more firefighters, and more librarians. All six city employee union contracts come up next year, and everyone understands that this means more across-the-board pay increases and better benefits.

Yet, in the above-referenced city chart, here’s the city’s five year “financial outlook” for total city employee “salaries and wages”:

2021: $652.7 million
2022: $654.3 million
2023: $652.2 million
2024: $652.0 million
2025: $653.2 million

In other words, this table shows essentially no increase in the salary budget after five years of expanding the city workforce and providing pay increases. My “best efforts” back-of-the-envelope figuring puts the real salary figure at $80 million higher in 2025 than the city projects—and the increase will probably be even larger than that.

I understand why the city lying. The city employees and the politicians have a shared interest in fooling the public (and the media) for as long as possible, but I’d expect better from our vaunted local media.

Apparently U-T reporters’ eyes glaze over when they look at numbers. Indeed, they just reported what the city press release told them without reviewing the “outlook” document itself. Looking at this chart, any middle school kid should be able to spot the obvious lie.

Too often, Union-Tribune reporters simply report. They don’t think and suffer from acute innumeracy. Even worse, the reporters don’t press officials with uncomfortable questions—supposedly the role of our free press.

Does the newspaper still employ editors? If they do, the paper should fire most of them. Apparently, too many U-T editors are useless deadwood that obviously no longer serve a purpose.