The level of emergency spending during the pandemic is unparalleled in San Diego history, according to a city spokesman.
The good news: The majority of the spending will be reimbursed by Uncle Sam. The bad news: The city still has to pay the difference with less revenue -- all while still accruing COVID-19 costs.
A public record request filed by NBC 7 shows as of Jan. 31, the city of San Diego reported spending more than $122 million in COVID-19-related costs. Of that, CARES Act federal dollars will cover more than $98 million, but that still leaves more than $24 million that the city must find a way to pay, and that figure is still rising.
“That really escalated this to a level we’ve never seen before,” city of San Diego spokesman Jose Ysea said. “We’ve had wildfires and some floods that we’ve requested funding for, but something at this scale, we’ve never seen this before.”
Ysea said city hires are told at orientation that they could be deployed as an emergency worker but that it’s not unusual for workers to never be called in during their career. That changed for many employees last year.
“This was an extraordinary event,” Ysea said. “We had a large number of employees that never knew that they were going to be called into action, as they were.”
Ysea said city librarians, lifeguards and others helped relocate homeless shelter residents to the convention center.
In fact "homelessness strategies" accounted for more than one-third of the city's COVID-19 spending -- at more than $41 million.
The second-largest COVID-19 cost would be police, which reported nearly $29 million in pandemic expenses, mostly all in additional personnel costs.
When asked for a breakdown of that spending, a city spokeswoman sent a statement saying the costs included but were not limited to:
- Providing security at mobile medical pods at SDCCU stadium
- Security post located at the Crown Plaza at 2270 Hotel Circle North. [The county used the hotel to isolate people exposed to COVID-19, many of whom were homeless]
- Securing beach parking lots
- Post-shift vehicle and equipment decontamination
- All emergency operation center and DOC operations
“It’s been a tremendous undertaking for us,” said Jack Schaeffer, president of the San Diego Police Officers Association. “Most of the stuff that we were doing was kinda like 24/7 coverage. So, you know, that’s basically three shifts of officers for however many days. It can add up.”
Schaeffer said it's not just the nature of the work but the duration that's racking up costs.
“Even the huge events,” Schaeffer said. “The big fires and all that stuff, was over the course of a week, or maybe a few days. This has gone on for over a year.”
Schaeffer said he's always worried about budget cuts, but it's the cost he can't count in dollars that troubles him most.
“What I’m more concerned about as the person that represents the cops is the toll that they’ve paid emotionally and fiscally,” Schaeffer said.
Ysea conceded that working COVID-19 costs into the new budget will be challenging. The city didn't just spend more last year, it made less. For example, the hotel-tax revenue stream was virtually nonexistent last year.
“Before this whole pandemic started, we knew budgets were lean,” Ysea said. “This just really threw a monkey wrench in all of that.”
On the upside, said Ysea, the city now has a much better idea of what costs are eligible for reimbursement, something he said will be useful as the city is in the middle of putting together its next budget. It’s one thing the city can now better plan for in its approach to a pandemic that no one saw coming.