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By Walter G. Meyer
What residents of East County are likely to find most frightening in this book is how the head-in-the-sand attitude left—and still leaves—the entire region vulnerable to the next firestorm. Erie and his co-authors make clear that almost nothing has been done to make the inevitable fire any less cataclysmic. – Walter G. Meyer
March 7, 2012 (San Diego)--Paradise Plundered is not a fun read. Far from it. The book will likely leave the reader angry at past mismanagement by San Diego elected officials and frustrated at mistakes that local government seems about to make--with little likelihood that they will avoid the same pitfalls that have dotted San Diego’s landscape like potholes left unfilled due to budget cuts. 
Written by Professor Steven P. Erie and Ph.D. candidate Vladmir Kogan of UCSD, and Professor Scott A. MacKenzie of UC Davis, Paradise Plundered: Fiscal Crisis and Governance Failures in San Diego is not a fun read, but it is a must read--especially  when San Diegans are poised to vote for a new mayor and on a pension plan that the author suggests could prove a financial disaster.  But what residents of East County and fire survivors countywide are likely to find most frightening in this book is how a head-in-the-sand attitude left—and still leaves—our entire region vulnerable to the next firestorm.
The 2003 firestorm was the worst in California’s history—until the 2007 firestorm forced the largest evacuation in U.S. history. The latter included evacuations even in coastal areas such as Solana Beach, thus residents countywide have much to fear from an inferno capable of swiftly engulfing our region.
Erie and his co-authors make clear that almost nothing has been done to make the inevitable fire any less cataclysmic.
The one thing on which the rich and the poor, the city dwellers and East County country folk should be able to agree is fire protection. The flames respect neither lines on a map nor mansions. Here is a sampling of the scary stats the book provides:
  • Nearly half of San Diego’s firefighting vehicles have outlived their useful lives.
  • San Diego ranks dead last in major cities in the U.S. in the ratio of firefighters to citizens
  • At an average territory of nine square miles per fire house, the response time per 9-1-1 call is well below the national average.
  • Since the 1920s, San Diego homes represented 20 percent of those destroyed in fires in the state even though the county had just 10 percent of the state’s residents during those years.
  • Former Fire Chief Jeff Bowman said San Diego needs 22 additional fire stations.
The book lays the blame for San Diego’s current fiscal predicament firmly at the feet of Mayor Pete Wilson and Susan Golding’s city manager, Jack McGrory. In the book and in speaking about it, Professor Erie makes it clear that he believes mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio’s pension plan is more of the same mismanagement that has been the norm for decades in San Diego: to blame labor and then to kick the can down the road for another set of city officials and taxpayers to pick up later. If you plunder the future and are long gone onto other things when the bill arrives, maybe they’ll put a statue in your honor once people have forgotten who made the mess, (as was the case with Wilson).
DeMaio wants to further curtail city services and cut taxes when both are badly out of whack compared to every other major city in California in terms of revenues and services. Multimillionaires like DeMaio have no need of libraries or playgrounds—they can buy any books they want and vacation in Hawaii, but for average citizens these seemingly small services are vital for their quality of life.
As people point out that full-blown libertarianism will get you Somali (there is no government there to interfere with your life), San Diego is proof of what a refusal to increase revenues will get you—public services reduced to dangerous levels. As nice as public libraries and parks are, fire protection is not just a matter of convenience or even economics—it is a matter of life and death.
It seems like a good thing that San Diego has no trash collection fees and low taxes, until it becomes apparent that the other side of that coin is a horrific police-to-people or fire-station-per-capita ratio. Fire protection is just one of many areas in which San Diego lags behind state or national standards, but is the one that most immediately impacts East County. For people living in the city itself, the book is a plea for their leaders to get their house in order and to stop living in a dream paradise where fire engines and libraries are brought by magic elves and don’t have to be paid for.
Paradise Plundered provides a brief but helpful history of how San Diego has been making poor choices for 150 years, up to its more recent past when an alarming number of its elected officials have been indicted, gone to prison, or resigned in disgrace. For all the jokes about the corruption of Chicago politics, it would be hard to find a city so corrupt that the New York Times dubbed America’s finest city, “Enron by the sea.”
The book also makes clear with real numbers the dishonesty of the oft-repeated saw that big public works projects like a new stadium or Liberty Station benefit the city. Both projects have been a net loss for the city and continue to be. There is a right way to do public-private partnership for major improvements, but as it does with so many things, San Diego misses the mark. Some of these failings are not just San Diego’s: studies and actual experiences in other cities have shown time and time again that forcing citizens to bear the costs of sports facilities for multimillionaires is a losing bet.
In speaking about Paradise Plundered, Erie makes it clear that he has no political dog in this fight.
He says from a purely scientific point of view, it might be interesting to see what happens to the city if it elects DeMaio and votes for his pension plan, but unfortunately that real-world experiment could be the last straw that destroys a city in which Erie hopes to go on living. Few individual leaders and no political party escape the blame for the current fiscal fiasco, but in his speaking and writing, Erie also sees a clear choice for San Diego’s future. He laments that as long as people continue to buy the premise of no taxes or fees being necessary that not only will paradise remain out of reach, but to borrow the Eagles’ lyrics quoted in the book: “You call someplace paradise, and kiss it good-bye.”

Walter G. Meyer is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His critically acclaimed novel, Rounding Third, was reviewed in East County Magazine.  

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