Mayor Sam Liccardo’s final State of the City address was a recap of the accomplishments of his administration and a look forward to the future of San Jose.
I specifically say “the accomplishments of his administration” rather than “his accomplishments” because sprinkled throughout his speech are shout-outs to many city employees whose hard work and leadership enabled those achievements. He clearly wants us to remember that his administration was a team effort.
Some forget that the mayor’s first term began during a very difficult and consequential time for San Jose.
Our city’s finances were in shambles, wrecked by the double whammy of the Great Recession and a sizable, and growing, unfunded pension liability. Employee morale was at a nadir after years of being blamed for the city’s financial woes, core services had been devastated, crime was spiking, the quality of our roads was declining, and the homeless population was increasing. The net result was that quality of life was falling and people were clamoring for change.
Liccardo hit these issues head on during his first term.
He struck a deal with police officers that provided more competitive pay, helping to reverse the exodus of officers from SJPD. Voters approved a measure codifying a pension settlement that ultimately led to a reversal of the inexorable increases in the city’s unfunded pension liability. Another ballot measure provided funding for street repairs and yet another provided revenue to support affordable housing projects. An improved city budget forecast with modest surpluses for the near term is allowing an expansion of library hours, after-school learning programs and tutoring.
Many people, myself included, have faulted Liccardo for putting too many balls in the air instead of focusing on one or two objectives, as his predecessor had done.
In retrospect, his approach was exactly what was needed at the time. Metaphorically speaking, San Jose’s fiscal house was on fire. Focusing efforts on one aspect of that, the kitchen, for instance, would not have helped. San Jose’s situation required myriad simultaneous attacks. “Broken Arrow,” a phrase from the movie We Were Soldiers, springs to mind. All available resources were needed to beat back the problems San Jose faced.
Liccardo did a very good, if somewhat chaotic, job of marshaling them. He successfully halted, or at least significantly slowed, the decay of our city.
Unfortunately, it seems that will be the extent of Sam Liccardo’s legacy, for just as San Jose was poised to move forward to better, broader improvements in our quality of life the pandemic hit.
Under his leadership the city deftly pivoted from a focus on improving core services to doing everything it could to help the community survive the resultant hardships; closed businesses and schools, stay-at-home orders, health mandates that were in a constant state of flux, and the massive fear, uncertainty and doubt surrounding the COVID-19 virus. The final two years of his second term were subsumed by fighting the virus. We’ll never know what could have been.
Liccardo gives us a glimpse of that in his State of the City address. He talks of the promise of recycled water to help with our drought-prone region. He cites the growth in jobs and revenues as businesses expand their San Jose presence. He shares coming changes in how we deploy our police, fire and medical resources to better serve the community. There is plenty for San Joseans to look forward to.
Over lunch a while ago, a friend and I pondered whether Sam Liccardo’s mayorship should be looked on as successful or failed.
His take was that it would be seen as a failure: There were too many unresolved issues. We are still not the safest big city in the U.S., many people are unhoused, housing prices are out of the reach of many residents, graffiti is everywhere.
My friend is correct on every account, yet I believe he is wrong about how the future will judge Liccardo as mayor.
Such judgment must be situational. Sam inherited a dire situation. He worked tirelessly throughout the first half of his administration to right the ship. Thanks to those efforts, the next mayor has a much better chance at being viewed as a successful one.
Pat Waite is President of Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility.