When Mayor Gavin Newsom walked across City Hall to the Board of Supervisors Chambers last week to announce that the city is facing a $576 million budget deficit, it looked as if he was putting political differences aside and genuinely inviting the board to "share the challenge" of bridging the 2008-09 budget chasm.
For years, voters and supervisors have urged Newsom to appear before the board for monthly policy discussions. And for as many years, Newsom has refused, claiming such invites were "political theater." Now that he’s finally made the trek, critics say the context makes the gesture more theatrical than substantive.
Within minutes of Newsom’s unannounced Dec. 9 visit to the board, City Hall insiders began to fear that the Newsom was only pretending to walk the unity talk: details of his $118 million in proposed mid-year solutions were not made available before the appearance, giving the two sides little to discuss and raising questions of due process.
"If the mayor was interested in real collaboration with the board, he would introduce his mid-year proposal to the board for our deliberation, just like the annual budget," Sup. Chris Daly told the Guardian. "But after we asked in three different ways, we found that he will be making over $70 million in cuts unilaterally without the board’s approval. Now we have to figure out how to get the public a seat at the budget table."
Unlike during the normal budget process, the mayor has tremendous power to make cuts mid-year. But with details slow to emerge, the legislators weren’t the only ones left in the dark about the proposal, which includes slashing the Department of Public Health’s budget by 25 percent, cuts that DPH director Mitch Katz told the supervisors is going to require fundamentally changing how government runs.
Several City Hall workers told the Guardian how, in the days after Newsom made his budget deficit announcement, Controller Ben Rosenfield was seen running from department to department, trying to track down the program-level details.
Supervisor-elect John Avalos, who has a deep understanding of the budgetary process from his years as a legislative aide to former Budget Committee chair Daly, confirmed that the mayor’s $118 Million proposal "doesn’t tell you much."
"There is $47 million in increased revenue that has come in that offsets the shortfall, and there’s a higher-than-expected census at San Francisco General Hospital that allows us to recoup some money. But although there are all kinds of service/non-service cuts in Newsom’s proposal, we have no details to work with," Avalos told the Guardian.
Two days after his board appearance, Newsom penned an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle in which he again appeared to be holding out his hand to the board. But Avalos, a candidate for president of the board, observed that Newsom continues to protect his own pet projects, which include the 311 Call Center, the Community Justice Center, and the Small Business Assistance Center.
"The pain needs to be shared and minimized all round," Avalos warned. "The mayor needs to come forward and help us, not simply cut all the programs that the Republicans want to see cut. There is this huge backlash from folks saying, ‘Why do we spend $1 billion on our public health system? Maybe we don’t need public health.’ But our services are there for a reason."
Avalos said he worries that if we cut all these programs now, it will be very hard to get them back down the line. "When revenue is back, the focus will be on things that are important, but not on services that help the most vulnerable folks," Avalos predicted.
Within three days of Newsom’s appearance before the board, Peskin had figured out a mechanism whereby the public could weigh in on Newsom’s cuts: he introduced legislation that combines the mayor’s $118.5 million proposal with an alternative $8.5 million in cuts that Peskin has proposed.
"So, now there’s a de facto collaboration," Peskin told the Guardian. Peskin’s package of alternative cuts which has since been pared back to $5.5 million because duplication with the mayor’s list was found includes budget reductions in the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, Emergency Management Department, Fire Department, Police Department, Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, the 311 call center, and city grants to the opera, ballet, and symphony. Peskin is also proposed wage freezes that could save another $35 million.
Peskin’s counter-move allows the public to weigh in on the combined proposals. It requires department heads to publicly defend cuts to programs, services, and personnel cuts that were developed, per Newsom’s request, behind closed doors. Or as Daly put it: "The mayor’s and the board’s proposals need to be deliberated not through a staff member to the mayor, but in full view of the public."
The board also wants to publicly discuss the layoffs, which Newsom said would total 399, a number that rose to 409 when the list was actually released. Peskin’s legislation also provides an avenue for fired workers or their representatives to publicly air discontent. A list of eliminated positions obtained by the Guardian shortly before press time shows that most of the positions were service providers making less than $70,000. Although union officials have complained that the ranks of highly paid managers has grown sharply since Newsom became mayor (visit sfbg.com for the complete list and more analysis).
SEIU’s Robert Haaland estimates that 75 percent of layoffs targeted line workers in service jobs. "As far as we can tell, the pain is all at the bottom," Haaland told the Guardian.
And while Haaland didn’t openly support Peskin’s counter-proposal a citywide sliding scale of pay cuts in which the highest earners take a bigger hit and an across-the-board union wage freeze he acknowledged that at least the proposal targets the powerful Police Officers Association and the Municipal Executives Association, and not just SEIU workers.
Haaland claims that under Newsom’s behind-closed-doors method, "the institutional bias of department heads tends to come into play" in making layoff decisions.
"It’s human nature. No one talks about it, and I don’t know that there’s a grand conspiracy," Haaland said, expressing his belief that it’s easier for managers to cut people they don’t work with than those around them or people at the top. "They also tend to target the union activists, the members who are a pain in the butt, and who they don’t like."
Newsom told the Chronicle in a Dec. 15 article that "labor is going to be a principal part of the solution." Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, told the Guardian that "the SFLC is listening to its affiliates to see if there are any collective strategies." But Haaland observed that the city is "contractually obligated to the unions," which may further complicate ongoing negotiations.
With Sup. Bevan Dufty advocating to restore more than $500,000 in HIV/AIDS funding cuts and Sup. Sophie Maxwell is trying to avoid cuts at the Small Business Center, newly sworn-in Sup. David Campos stressed the need for a meaningful vetting process.
"It’s important for us to have a process that sheds light on the human impacts of the proposed cuts so we have a better sense of what it means to citizens of San Francisco," Campos said at a Dec. 12 board committee hearing.
Campos also made it clear that he is not afraid to target the arts, arguing that deep-pocketed patrons can help ease their pain, even as advocates countered that attacking entertainment will further deplete the city’s coffers by potentially hurting tourism. "As much as we appreciate the need to support the arts, we’re going to have to look at other avenues some of those folks can turn to, to get the funding that is needed," Campos warned. "People who have the greatest needs don’t have those options. "
With repeated rounds of painful cuts predicted in the next six months, Peskin told a Dec. 12 Government Audits and Oversight Committee hearing that it’s critical for the board to express its priorities. "These include keeping Rec and Park facilities open, providing basic mental health services, and preserving public sector jobs," Peskin said. "It’s also important that everyone share the pain, but not necessary that everyone share the pain equally."
Outside the meeting, laid-off worker Allanda Turner described her pain and the devastation she feels at being let go in the midst of a recession. "I’m a parent. I just purchased a home. I’m feeling almost no hope at all," said Turner, who fears she will be applying for the medical services, unemployment, and food stamps that she refers clients to as part of her job with the city’s Human Services Agency.
"The mayor always says he advocates for the poor, but we are the most underpaid," she said. Meanwhile, while her colleagues claim that their department "gave Newsom what he wanted" by adding layoffs to an original list of cuts that included fewer jobs.
"These are unit clerks, employment specialists, eligibility workers, and line workers," said Sin Yee Poon, a DHS contract manager. "Eight of them are child-protection workers."
There will be one last meeting of the current Board of Supervisors in January, and both incoming and outgoing members are already specuutf8g that unless Peskin’s legislation passes with a veto-proof majority, the mayor will veto it and this period of symbolic unity will come to an abrupt end.
"We have the capacity, the ingenuity, and the spirit to solve this," Newsom told the board. "It’s going to take all of us working together. It’s in that spirit that I am here. The mid-year solution difficult and painful as it is it’s the easy part. The difficult part comes in the next four months."
But as legislators explore the possibility of adding to their budget tools in the future through charter amendments and special elections, one aide stressed the importance of taking an active role now.
"It’s important for the board to set the stage now for the budget discussions in the spring."