Controller, in radical move, defies supes

Pub date November 16, 2009
WriterTim Redmond
SectionPolitics Blog

By Tim Redmond

In a move that’s unprecedented in modern San Francisco history, city controller Ben Rosenfield appears poised to try to block the Board of Supervisors from approving a $7 million supplemental budget appropriation to prevent 500 layoffs of frontline health department workers.

It’s the latest twist in a convoluted battle that pits SEIU Local 1021 and the progressives on the board against the mayor, who wants to lay off nurses aides and clerical workers.

In a budgetmessage posted today, Rosenfield says that the city is running $53 million in the red, and that “until this shortfall is addressed, the Controller’s Office will not be able to certify funds from the General Fund Reserve for other appropriations.”

Rosenfield, a Newsom appointee, is apparently relying on a very old City Charter section that looks like this:

S.F. Charter Sec. 9.113 (d) “General Fiscal Provisions”

No ordinance or resolution for the expenditure of money, except the
annual appropriation ordinance, shall be passed by the Board of
Supervisors unless the Controller first certifies to the Board that
there is a sufficient unencumbered balance in a fund that may legally be
used for such proposed expenditure, and that, in the judgment of the
Controller, revenues as anticipated in the appropriation ordinance for
such fiscal year and properly applicable to meet such proposed
expenditures will be available in the treasury in sufficient amount to
meet the same as it becomes due.

But in my 25 years of covering City Hall, I have never once seen this happen. There have been bad budget deficits before, and supplemental appropriations, and the controller has never told the supervisors that they can’t spend reserve money.

“About the only thing Rosenfield and I agree on is that this has never been done before,” Sup. Chris Daly told me this evening.

The controller’s report notes that several city departments are running over budget — but interestingly, Human Services and Public Health, the targets of the layoffs, are running a surplus of $8.1 million (exactly what the supervisors want to spend).

Among those departments facing shortfalls: The Sheriff’s Office, which is in the red because of “an increase in jail population” — possibly due to the new police chief’s crackdown on drug dealing in the Tenderloin.

I couldn’t reach Rosenfield tonight, but Daly notes that the same legislation was before the board last week, and Rosenfield didn’t object. “So he’s already certified it,” Daly said. “And I’m not sure how he can decertify it now.”

I’m not going to argue that the city has money to burn, but there are always mid-year budget changes in bad times. The supes and the mayor are going to have to make some budget adjustments. But there’s also unanticipated money coming in — for example, San Francisco stands to get about $33 million in federal stimulus money for the Department of Public Health in April, and that funding will be retroactive to the previous year. So this year’s shortfall will actually be $33 million less.

Tina Johnson, a legislative affairs staffer for the state Department of Health Care Services, confirmed the near-certain availability of that money in a Nov. 16th letter to state Sen. Leland Yee.

In any other year, I suspect the controller would follow the normal practice of informing the mayor and the supes that the budget was out of line (as it is, in one way or another, almost every year) and then allow them to come up with some mid-year corrections. But this battle between Local 1021 and the mayor has gotten ugly, and I’m sure there was pressure on Rosenfield.

Look for a showdown at the board meeting tomorrow (Nov. 17). Daly told me that whatever Rosenfield says, “we’re going to have a vote on this.”