By Joe Tash
The San Diego City Council, struggling to close a $179 million budget gap, has voted to eliminate city funding of the San Dieguito River Park, which was established 20 years ago and is envisioned one day to include a 55-mile trail from Volcan Mountain near Julian to the beach at Del Mar.
Council members Sherri Lightner and Carl DeMaio, who sit on the board of the agency that oversees the river park, along with Councilwoman Donna Frye, are working to restore $368,885 that was cut from the Parks and Recreation Department budget, which funded the city's contribution to the river park for the final quarter of this year, and the entire following year.
But unless those efforts are successful — which include determining the legality of transferring the payments from the parks department to the better-
financed city water department — the cuts, some 36 percent of the river park's operating budget, will stand.
Lightner was optimistic about restoring the funding in an interview last week. "I think it looks very hopeful," she said.
The river park was launched in 1989 with the establishment of a joint powers authority, a governmental agency with representatives from the county of San Diego and the five cities in which the park is contained — San Diego, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Escondido and Poway. The authority, or JPA, operates on an annual budget of about $900,000.
The council voted 7-1, with DeMaio opposed, to approve a budget plan submitted by Mayor Jerry Sanders, which includes the layoffs of about 200 city employees, elimination of mounted police horse patrols in Balboa Park, reduced staffing at some city fire stations on a rotating basis, a reduction in the number of police canine units, reduced library hours and elimination of the popular fire rings on city beaches.
The cuts span the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends in June, and the following budget year, which begins July 1.
Sanders said the city must make painful cuts because of a plunge in revenue caused by the recession, but river park supporters criticized the decision.
"If the City Council does vote to pull out of the river park, I'm going to consider it a betrayal," said Dick Bobertz, executive director of the joint powers authority, said in an interview before the council vote. "The city of San Diego was the lead agency in setting up the river park to start with. After supporting it for 20 years and creating a success, to just withdraw is an extremely unwise, short-sighted and bad decision."
"It is a betrayal. They entered into this JPA, there was no gun held to their head," said County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, current chairwoman of the JPA board.
"It's shocking. It's a resource that a lot of people have spent a tremendous amount of volunteer hours on, and a lot of contributions to bring it to position the park's in now," said Chaco Clotfelter, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and member of the San Dieguito Community Planning Group. "I think it's in imminent danger ... we don't know what's going to happen to the land if the funding is cut off and we lose staff."