Volume 43 Number 12

Beyond the bloody cuts

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EDITORIAL There’s actually a bright side to the brutally depressing budget struggles in San Francisco and Sacramento. This could be the year Californians finally start to recognize that they can’t have a functioning state, with the services everyone wants, without paying taxes. It could be the end of the Republican lie that the budget problem is only on the spending side, the end of the famous no-new-taxes pledge — and the end to the requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature pass any budget, an archaic rule that is crippling California.

And with a little leadership from the new supervisors at City Hall, this could be the year San Francisco takes a serious look at how local government is financed.

This is no time for modest, cautious proposals. The budget situation is alarming. California is looking at $40 billion in cuts over the next 18 months — more than a third of the entire state budget. San Francisco is looking at $500 million in red ink — roughly half the discretionary spending from the general fund. Filling those holes with cuts alone would be devastating.

This isn’t your average budget battle, where everyone fights to save a few hundred thousand dollars here and a million there for a crucial program. This is, by all accounts, something of an order that the state and local government haven’t seen since the 1930s.

So small-time, piecemeal fixes aren’t going to work. Here’s what the state and the city need to be talking about.

AT THE STATE LEGISLATURE


The first thing that has to go is the two-thirds rule. It’s become almost a farce — a handful of Republicans, who have sworn never to raise taxes under any circumstances, are holding the world’s sixth-largest economy and a state of more than 37 million people hostage to their failed ideology. Enough talk: the Democrats need to mount a massive signature drive for a special election this summer to repeal that requirement.

There are many fair ways to raise taxes to bring in enough revenue to stave off devastating cuts. Raising the income tax levels on the highest wage earners makes the most sense. Gas prices are way down; raising the state gas tax by a few cents a gallon won’t bring prices even close to last summer’s level. We’re nervous about taxing services (medical care, for example, is a "service"), but a carefully crafted tax that exempts essentials ought to be on the table. California is the only oil-producing state that doesn’t tax oil at the wellhead; that’s a no-brainer. So is restoring the vehicle license fee; Gov. Schwarzenegger’s decision to eliminate that fee has cost the state $40 billion over the past five years.

AT CITY HALL


Step one: the mayor has to recognize that there’s no way to solve a half-billion dollar shortfall with cuts alone. Step two: the mayor needs to back off from the layoffs and cuts for a few weeks until the supervisors and the community stakeholders have a chance to meet, talk, and look at all the options. Step three: some far-reaching changes have to be on the agenda, right now.

We like the idea of a city income tax. Technically, under state law, all the city can do is tax income earned within local borders, meaning that commuters would pay (good) and San Franciscans who work out of town would escape payment (bad). But overall, the concept is better than anything else out there. A local income tax that exempts, say, the first $50,000 (assuring that lower-income people pay nothing) with progressive rates skewed toward charging very high wage-earners the most could bring in significant revenue in the fairest way possible.

We’d like to see a progressive business tax — raise the rates on the biggest companies. We could live with a short-term hike in the local sales tax; frankly, we could live with most short-term revenue increases. The supervisors need to look at what new taxes make the most sense and prepare for a special election in the spring to put a revenue package before the voters. And everyone — including the mayor — needs to campaign hard for it.

The city also needs to look at the rainy-day fund, money set aside for bad economic times. Only a small amount of the close to $100 million now in that fund is available in any one year, but that rule might have to be changed.

This crisis is an opportunity — a chance to examine how the city’s current revenue sources are unfair, unstable, and unwieldy. Why are business taxes flat (big corporations and small businesses pay the same rate)? Why does San Francisco rely so much on property and transfer taxes, which shift radically with economic ups and downs? And of course, a public power system would generate enough money to cover a huge part of the deficit. The supervisors need to find an immediate revenue-based solution, but should also start creating a serious task force to overhaul the entire revenue side of the budget. Today.

Sharing the pain

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› sarah@sfbg.com

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."

The Year in Music 2008

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What is this crazy little thing called canon creation in ’08, and what are the new classics and essential listens? SF vs. NYC, drone, pop, the state of hip-hop in the Bay and away — all are up for grabs in 2008 as our writers chime in with their musical must-hears.

Make a list and check it twice: do you have a top 10? Send it to Kimberly Chun at kimberly@sfbg.com by Dec. 26 — we’ll run the most intriguing lists in an upcoming issue of the Guardian.

>>Loose canon
A new set of touchstones for rocky times
By Kimberly Chun

>>Ask a musician
How to cope with musical canon formation in an ever-morphing, anti-matter era
By Johnny Ray Huston


>>Purple canon
Bay hip-hop received an infusion of new blood and fresh inspiration
By Garrett Caples

>>Tops in 2008
Writers and musicians give up their faves and beyond from 2k8
Lists, lists, lists

>>Youthquake
There’s just no stopping the march of the SF nightlife Smurfs
By Marke B.

>>Hungry for Lee Hazlewood
You didn’t have to dig deep to find the canonical figure this year
By Todd Lavoie

>>Hater aid
I Hate New Music, but does new music suck?
By Will York

>>Barf manifesto
Pop ate and re-ate itself, then regressed and regurgitated
By Billy Jam

>>You heard it here first
New York steals San Francisco’s thunder — but who cares?
By Josh Wilson

>>Daughters of a drone
Celebrating a different kind of singer-songwriter
By Max Goldberg

>>Moving forward
Smaller meant better in 2008, in myriad little ways
By Brandon Bussolini

>>A better tomorrow
Hip-hop pins its hopes on the future, despite the buzz
By Mosi Reeves

Volume 43 Number 12 Flip-through Edition

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Half-forgotten memories

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PREVIEW Choreographer-dancer Erika Tsimbrovsky and visual artist–performer Vadim Puyandaev may be new to the Bay Area, but they are old hands in the theater. Having more than a decade of what they describe as "audio-visual-kinetic" performance under their belts, mostly in Eastern Europe and Israel, they have also developed a fine nose for ferreting out good collaborators. For their new Scrap-Soup, they have enlisted some top Bay Area artists: musicians Sean Felt and Albert Mathias and, among others, dancers Suzanne Lappas, Kira Kirsch, and Andrew Ward.

The primary impetus that drives Tsimbrovsky and Puyandaev’s work is an interest in exploring — through improvisational structures — different media and their relationships to one another. The Garden (2007), their first work in this country, looked at how gestures — musical, visual, and kinetic — can reignite half-forgotten memories. For Scrap they went through records of how information has been visually transmitted historically, via medieval manuscripts, hieroglyphs, and Japanese scrolls, and in contemporary mass communication, by way of billboards and computer screens. They want to know whether the preservation of content has been changed by today’s technology, and if so, how? Those are big theoretical questions, but the artists involved — all of them experienced improvisers — are hands-on, dig-into-the-material kinds of collaborators. Scrap‘s format will take the shape of a constantly shifting installation for which Tsimbrovsky and Puyandaev set the parameters, but within which the performers are on their own to hopefully bounce off one another.

SCRAP-SOUP Fri/19–Sat/20, 8 p.m., $15–$20. Project Theater Artaud, 450 Florida, SF. (415) 863-9834, www.artaud.org/theater

Mercury Rev

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PREVIEW "Snowflake in a Hot World," the opening track off Mercury Rev’s new Snowflake Midnight (Yep Roc), seems to touch lightly on the perishable nature of the band’s homegrown psych experiments. The New York combo has been around for more than two decades — often lumped with Flaming Lips due to their common musical explorations and the fact that de facto member Dave Fridmann is also the Lips’ longtime producer — which is long enough to fall into routine. But that’s not the way to make a Snowflake, so the band took a few new approaches to crystallizing the glimmering, moody yet surprisingly urgent psych-pop recording.

Moving blues played a part: Mercury Rev had to relocate its studio twice and was forced to purge unused equipment in the process. The tools that remained explain the electronic textures infusing the album. The group also played tiny clubs in the Catskills and the Hudson Valley area, buried on bills as the Harmony Rockets, and they’d try out one simple idea on generally unsuspecting audiences: "It could be a very simple motif," explains keyboardist Jeff Mercel from Boston. "We’d just take it and embellish and spin it out for 45 minutes in a live, electronic, improvisational sort of way." Back at the studio, the musicians also developed Snowflake Midnight‘s sound via improvisation. "I don’t think any of us wanted to sit by candlelight and try to write the perfect song and then impose it on everyone else," Mercel says. After a year, Mercury Rev had hundreds of hours of instrumental music. The pieces that "kept insisting you pay attention to them slowly rose to the top," says Mercel. The result, as "A Squirrel and I (Holding On…and Then Letting Go)" goes, was "something more beautiful but strange."

MERCURY REV With the Duke Spirit. Wed/17–Thurs/18, 8 p.m., $25. Independent, 628 Divisadero, SF. (415) 771-1422, www.theindependentsf.com

YaHoWha 13

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PREVIEW It’s hard to know where to begin or end when it comes to telling the story of the Source Family, the commune out of which YaHoWha 13’s recordings emerged. The Source — an organic, vegetarian Los Angeles restaurant founded in 1969 by the group’s leader, Father Yod — had a distinct, documentable existence, but as these things go, the spiritual family that gathered around it was considerably more amorphous. YaHoWha 13 released nine LPs, all of which were improvised and recorded in one take. Listening to the music now, it’s clear that we lack the full transcript for what went on behind the scenes, as most of the group’s philosophy remains a secret. But we can rest assured that the members of the re-formed band — Djin, Octavius, and Sunflower Aquarius — now find themselves in a similar position musically: "For the most part, we’re going to be playing spontaneously," Djin says by phone from Mount Shasta. "But we’ve had requests to do tunes that came out of improvisation on the albums, and that requires us to learn them since we don’t know how we played or even what key we played in."

It’s an unlikely reunion not only due to the nature of the material, but also because of the forces bringing the group together. Considerably more popular with the folks who read the Forced Exposure catalog than, say, Pitchfork followers, YaHoWha 13 don’t hang their reputation on a single, easily communicable musical achievement — they don’t have a Loveless, but they do have Penetration: An Aquarian Symphony (Higher Key, 1974). "It almost seems like there was a divine plan in this entire resurrection," Djin says. "Billy Corgan and his friend Carrie Brown were tripping out at the Bodhi Tree metaphysical bookstore, saw the Father Yod/YaHoWha 13 book, and he just contacted us, in the midst of all of this. Devendra Banhart is another one — he had already been in contact with Sky Saxon. There’s just so many outrageous coincidences, you might say, but not by accident. Really, there’s some organic thing going on here."

YAHOWHA 13 Thurs/18, 8 p.m., $16–$20. Slim’s, 333 11th St., SF. (415) 522-0333, www.slims-sf.com

Brainy scifi

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REVIEW Middle-aged Hector (Karra Elejalde) is lounging outside his country home when he spies through binoculars a young woman naked in the woods. Investigating, he’s attacked by a man with a face covered by bloody bandage, and flees to a nearby property where a laboratory worker (Nacho Vigalondo) tells him to hide from his pursuer in a mechanical device. When Hector

reemerges from the as-yet-untested time machine, it’s several hours earlier — and his binoculars now spy himself, or "Hector 2," at home going through the same pre-attack motions. Eliminating the doppelganger and ensuring the rewound hours ahead don’t turn disastrous proves ever more difficult as Spanish writer-director Vigalondo’s ingenious screenplay becomes an endlessly spiraling Escher painting of a narrative. While the final payoff is a little

underwhelming, this very clever thriller proves it’s still possible to do sci-fi that’s brainy, imaginative, and not at all dependent on CGI spectacle.

TIMECRIMES opens Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters.

“Dream On!”

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PREVIEW ‘Tis the season for Bay Area art to slow to a near standstill. Many galleries are closed through 2008. Those still open tend to favor group shows that double as holiday sales — a tough proposition this year. Mission 17 is bucking the trend with "Dream On!," a juried exhibition put together by director-curator Clark Buckner and three others. The show’s dream theme is a mighty wide one. It allows for photographic work by Jessica Rosen (showcased in the Guardian‘s annual August photo issue) and Jason Hanasik, whose verdant Steven in a bed of flowers displays a light touch while grazing up against potentially unsubtle topics such as homoeroticism, militarism, and Andrew Wyeth–like Americana combinations of human and landscape portraiture. (Hanasik is fond of depicting figures in repose.) Mission 17 sneaks some playful and thoughtful art into the city — Ryan Alexiev’s summer solo effort, "The Land of a Million Cereals," was one of 2008’s most enjoyable shows. This group collection, 20 artists strong, holds promise.

DREAM ON! Through Jan. 31, 2009. Wed.–Sat., 1–6 p.m., or by appointment. Mission 17, 2111 Mission, SF. (415) 861-3144, www.mission17.org>.