Behind the all-smiles budget

Pub date June 7, 2011

When Mayor Ed Lee released his 2011-12 budget proposal June 1, all was sweetness and light at City Hall.

The mayor delivered the document in person, to the supervisors, in the board chambers. Sup. Carmen Chu, chair of the Budget Committee, was standing to the mayor’s right. Board President David Chiu was to his left. There was none of the imperious attitude we’d come to expect in the Gavin Newsom era — and little of the typical hostility from the board.

As Sup. David Campos, who was elected in November 2008, remarked afterward: “It’s the first time since I’ve been elected that the mayor has taken the time to come to chambers. It’s reflective of how this has been a lot more of an inclusionary process.”

Lee went even further. “This is a pretty happy time,” he said. “There are no layoffs, and instead of closing libraries we’ll be opening them.” That earned him an ovation from assembled city leaders, including mayoral candidates City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting along with District Attorney George Gascón. “I think this budget represents a lot of hope.”

It’s true that this year’s cuts won’t be as bad as the cuts over the past five years. It’s also true that the pain is spread a bit more — the police and fire departments, which Newsom, always the ambitious politician, wouldn’t touch, are taking their share of cuts.

But before everybody stands up and holds hands and sings “Kumbaya,” there’s some important perspective that’s missing here.

Over the past half-decade, San Francisco has cut roughly $1 billion out of General Fund spending. The Department of Public Health has eliminated three- quarters of the acute mental health beds. Six homeless resource centers have closed. The waiting list for a homeless family seeking shelter is between six and nine months. Muni service has been reduced and fares have been raised. Recreation centers have been closed. Library hours have been reduced.

In other words, services for the poor and middle class have been slashed below acceptable levels, year after year — and Mayor Lee’s budget doesn’t even begin to restore any of those cuts.

“We’re not ready yet to restore old cuts,” Lee told the Guardian in a June 2 interview. “It was enough for us to accomplish a pretty steady course and keep as much. Particularly with the critical nonprofits that provide services to seniors and youth and homeless shelters, we kept them as close as we could to what last year’s funding was.”

But the current level of funding is woefully inadequate. As Debbi Lerman, administrator of the Human Services Network, noted, the people who work in the nonprofits Lee was talking about haven’t had a pay raise in four years — even though the cost of living continues to rise. “Our costs have gone up with cost of inflation,” she noted.

She said the cuts over the past few years have deeply eroded services for children, homeless people, substance abuse programs, and others. “There have been significant cuts to every area of health and human services.”

And in a city with 14 billionaires and thousands more very wealthy people, Lee’s budget is distinctly lacking in significant new ways to find revenue.



Just about everyone agrees that the budget process this year has been far better than anything anyone experienced under Newsom. “He [Mayor Lee] listened to everybody,” Lerman said. “That doesn’t mean they fixed everything. Mayor Lee fixed as much as he could.”

At his press conference announcing the release of the budget, Lee thanked Police Chief Greg Suhr for having already made significant cuts through management restructuring and for considering an additional proposed cut of $20 million.

“We want to thank you for that great sacrifice,” Lee said, addressing Suhr, who sat in front row of public benches, dressed in uniform. Lee next acknowledged that adequate funding for social services also helps public safety. “Without those services, officers on the street would have a harder job,” he said.

Lee also praised the departments of Public Health and Human Services for helping to identify $39 million in federal dollars and $16 million in state dollars, to help keep services open and the city safer.

Lee noted that San Francisco no longer has a one-year budget process and has just released its first five-year financial plan as part of its decision to go in five-year planning cycles.

“To address this, I’ve asked for shared sacrifice, ” Lee continued, adding that he recently released his long-awaited pension reform charter amendment, emphasizing that it was built through a consensus and collaborative-based approach.

Lee also said he would consider asking voters to approve what he called “a recovery sales tax” in November if Gov. Jerry Brown is unable to extend the state’s sales tax. That would bring in $60 million — but it is only on the table as a way to backfill further state budget cuts.

Lee observed that San Francisco is growing, the economy is looking brighter, and unemployment is down from more than 10 percent last January to 8.5 percent today. He plugged the America’s Cup, the city’s local hire legislation, the Department of Public Works’ apprenticeship programs, and tourism, both in terms of earmarking funding in the budget for these programs and their potential to boost city revenues.

He said his budget proposed $308 million in infrastructure investments that include enhanced disability access, rebuilding jails, and energy efficiency, and is proposing a $248 million General Obligation bond for the November ballot to reduce the street repair backlog.

“We will get these streets repaired,” he promised.

“This submission of a budget is not an end at all, it’s the beginning of the process,” he continued, going on to recognize Chu for her work getting the process rolling and thanking Budget Analyst Harvey Rose in advance. “I do know his cooperation is critical.”

And he concluded by thanking each of the supervisors. “I will continue enjoying working with you — we need to keep the city family tight and together.”

The sentiment was welcomed by supervisors. “As he said, this is the beginning of the process, and it’s an important and symbolic step” Campos said. “The budget shows that a lot of good programs have been saved. But there is still work to do.

“There are still gaps in the safety network,” he added, singling out cuts to violence-prevention programs. “It’s my hope they will be restored.”



But even if the cuts for this year are restored, the city budget is nowhere near where it ought to be. “We still had to make cuts,” Lee acknowledged.

“We did consider very seriously a whole host of revenue ideas that we had,” he said. “They were not off the agenda at all.” At the same time, he noted that state law requires a two-thirds vote for new taxes (although that threshold drops to 50 percent in presidential election years). “We decided that it’s not that they were bad ideas, but that we wouldn’t be able to sell them at this time.”

Lee praised some of the revenue ideas that have been suggested in the past year, including the alcoholic beverage fee proposal by Sup. John Avalos, which Lee called “a pretty good idea.” He said that “a year or two from now” an additional sales tax and a parcel tax (for the police or for schools and open space) might be on the agenda.

The city now has a multiyear budget process and projections are supposed to go beyond a single year. But what’s missing — and what nobody is talking about — is a long-term plan to restore critical city services to a sustainable level. That means talking — now — about tax proposals for 2012 and beyond and including those revenue streams in long-term budget planning.

Because the city parks, the public health system, the libraries, the schools, affordable housing programs, and the social safety net are in terrible condition today, the result of year after year of all-cuts budgets. And while the supervisors and the mayor wrangle over the final details, and advocates try to win back a few dollars here and a few dollars there, it’s important to recognize that this budget does nothing to fix the damage.

“We’re about $10 million short of what we need right now to keep service providers at current levels,” noted Jennifer Freidenbach, who runs the Coalition on Homelessness. “But we also need to restore the health and human services system that was slaughtered under Gavin Newsom.”