At a time when eight of San Diego's 47 fire engines are browned out on a daily basis, should taxpayer money be earmarked for "public art" projects in front of new or rebuilt fire stations?
It's a question posed by critics of Prop. D, the city's proposed half-cent sales tax hike, and it figured to become a long-burning public relations issue for the Yes on D campaign -- until Mayor Jerry Sander moved quickly on Thursday in an effort to extinguish it.
"While the goals of public art are important and commendable," Sanders said in a memo to City Council members, "they must be closely examined at a time when our public safety goals cannot adequately be funded."
The mayor recommended that the council suspend a policy requiring that up to 2 percent of the funds for municipal construction projects costing more than $250,000 be earmarked for public art displays.
The policy allows the mayor to recommend that it be temporarily suspended for the current or upcoming fiscal year if "anticipated revenues ... will be insufficient to maintain the current level of city services."
Referring to that aspect of the policy, Sanders noted: "At present, the city is considering substantial and deep cuts in all general fund services ... it is highly probable that these cuts will include making permanent the 'rolling brownouts' at fire stations, layoffs of sworn police personnel and closure of city facilities."
City officials are now in late-stages planning for the reconstruction of Fire Station 5 in Hillcrest and Fire Station 17 in City Heights.
The 2 percent public-art set-asides would amount to about $150,000 for each rebuilding project.
Leaders of the No on D campaign, who had voiced criticism about installing such artwork in the midst of a budget crisis, see political nuances as well as common sense in the mayor's recommendation.
"Necessity is the mother of motivation," said T.J. Zane, the president and CEO of the Lincoln Club of San Diego County and a leading opponent of Prop. D. "I think it was incumbent upon the City Council and mayor's office that [they recognize] 'we have a problem and we have to address it; we have to put this fire out,' so to speak.
"So, in terms of their public relations response, they're on top of their game in that regard. The question must be begged, however: How many other instances are there like this? How many other examples of this kind of waste in the city's budget?"
Media representatives for the six council members aligned with the Yes on D campaign referred questions to the mayor's office but suggested "the votes are there" -- presumably including those of the two anti-Prop. D members -- to suspend the public-art policy.
A mayoral spokesman said it's not immediately clear whether or how the suspended public arts money could be transferred from capital improvement project budgets to fire-rescue budgets. At the very least, though, if the 2 percent public-art set-asides must remain in the capital budgets, they would further enhance the new fire station projects.