Fix Newsom’s bad budget

EDITORIAL Annual budgets can seem wonky and impenetrable, but they’re perhaps the most important statements of a city’s values and priorities. That’s why it’s critically important for the Board of Supervisors to make significant changes to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposed $6 billion spending plan, which is out of step with what San Francisco should be about.

Ideally, this month’s budget hearings would be informed by an honest and open discussion of what Newsom proposed in his June 1 budget, how it affects residents and Newsom’s political interests, and where the board might want to make some changes.

Unfortunately, both the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner have failed to offer a substantial analysis of the budget; instead, they’ve focused on sensational headlines about whether the mayor has used cocaine, personality conflicts between Newsom and Sup. Chris Daly (including a pair of over-the-top hit pieces on Daly in the June 23 Chron), and misleading spin coming from Newsom’s office and reelection campaign.

But there’s plenty of good budget analysis out there, thanks to the work of city agencies such as the Controller’s Office and the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Analyst Office, nonprofits like the People’s Budget Coalition, smart citizens like Marc Salomon, and reporting by the Guardian‘s Sarah Phelan ("The Budget’s Opening Battle," 6/20/07) and Chris Albon ("Newsom Cuts Poverty Programs," 6/20/07).

What that analysis shows is that the mayor’s much-ballyhooed "back-to-basics" budget — which prioritizes public safety, cityscape improvements, home ownership programs, and pet projects such as Project Homeless Connect — would make unconscionable cuts to essential social services and affordable housing programs, rely way too much on gimmicks and private capital to address public needs, and offer almost nothing that is innovative or befitting a progressive city at a crucial point in history.

Some specific examples and recommendations:

Newsom’s 4 percent cut in the Department of Public Health budget — which his appointed Health Commission took the unusual step of refusing to implement because the fat has already been trimmed away in previous budgets — is unacceptable. It would slash substance abuse treatment, homeless and HIV/AIDs services, and other programs that would simply be unavailable if the city didn’t fund them. The board should fully restore that funding and even consider providing seed money for innovative new programs that would help lift people out of poverty. Only after the city fully meets the needs of its most vulnerable citizens should it consider cosmetic fixes like expanded street cleaning.

• The budget should strike a balance on cityscape improvements that is lacking now. Contrary to the alternative budget proposed by Daly, which would have cut the $6.6 million that Newsom proposed for street improvements, we agree with the SF Bicycle Coalition that many streets are dangerous and in need of repair. It’s a public health and safety issue when cars and bikes need to swerve around potholes. But the $2.9 million in sidewalk improvements could probably be scaled back to just deal with accessibility issues rather than cosmetic concerns. And we don’t agree with Newsom’s plan to add 100 blocks and $2.1 million to the Corridors street-cleaning program, which already wastes far too much money, water, chemicals, and other resources.

As we mentioned last week ("More Cops Aren’t Enough," 6/20/07), the police budget doesn’t need the extra $33 million that Newsom is proposing, at least not until he’s willing to facilitate a public discussion about the San Francisco Police Department’s mission and lack of accountability. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi (a progressive who is strong on public safety and even clashed with Daly over the issue) was right to recently challenge the terrible contract that Newsom negotiated with the cops, which gives them a 25 percent pay increase and asks almost nothing in return.

Newsom’s housing budget would move about $50 million from renter and affordable-housing programs into initiatives promoting home ownership, which is just not a realistic option for most residents and represents a shift in city priorities that serves developers more than citizens. Some of that change is specific to a couple of big owner-occupied yet fairly affordable projects in the pipeline for next year, but the budget also does little to address the fact that we are steadily losing ground in meeting the goal in the General Plan’s Housing Element of making 62 percent of new housing affordable to most residents, when we should be expanding these programs by at least the $28 million that the board approved but Newsom rejected. Similarly, the board should keep pushing the Housing Authority to apply for federal Hope VI funds to make needed improvements to the public housing projects rather than supporting Newsom’s Hope SF, which purports to magically turn a $5 million expenditure into $700 million in housing — as long as we accept the devil’s bargain of 700 to 900 market-rate condos along with the public housing units.

Finally, there are lots of little items in Newsom’s budget that could be cut to find funding for more important city priorities. Don’t give him $1.1 million to hassle the homeless in Golden Gate Park or $700,000 for his New York–style community court in the Tenderloin.

The bottom line is that a progressive city should not be pandering to the cops, punishing the poor, and polishing up its streets when so many of its citizens are struggling just to find shelter and make it to the next month. Newsom has forgotten about the ideals that the Democratic Party once embraced, but it’s not too late for the Board of Supervisors to correct that mistake. *