And so it begins

Pub date June 11, 2008
WriterSarah Phelan


Mayor Gavin Newsom chose a telling site for the June 2 release of his budget: the San Francisco Police Department’s Special Tactical Operations Center at Hunters Point Shipyard. And if its relationship to Proposition G, the mayor’s plan to let Lennar Corporation develop the southeast part of the city, wasn’t clear enough, Newsom made it explicit.

"You’ll have the opportunity to support Proposition G and reject Proposition F, the one that is getting in the way," Newsom told department heads and the press as police, who warned budget protesters that it is illegal to campaign on city property, looked on in silence. It is also illegal for the mayor to campaign for ballot measures on city property.

In his speech, Newsom labeled as the "heroes" of this year’s budget the unions that have agreed to unpaid days off, including the Laborer’s Union, the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, Firefighters Local 798, and the Municipal Executives Association. Conversely, he vowed to remember that the police, nurses, and lawyers unions wouldn’t amend the contracts Newsom negotiated last summer.

Sounding more like a gubernatorial candidate intent on winning over Orange County voters than the leader of the most progressive city in the nation, Newsom said, "We are living within our means and being fiscally prudent, without out-of-control borrowing and without tax increases. But we still have a $338 million shortfall."

But there has been widespread criticism of the mayor’s plan as details emerge of its massive cuts to health and human services, while increasing the city’s budget for street repaving, pothole repair, and police academies.

"It’s the least democratic, least transparent budget process in many years, in terms of lack of information from the Mayor’s Office to the city departments and the community-based organizations that are affected," said Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth organizer Chelsea Boilard. "In the past, programs were given a heads-up. This year it continues to be a frantic scramble."

According to Boilard, city departments were still finding out the extent of the cuts even after Newsom made his presentation, including the news that the budget addbacks approved by the Board of Supervisors last year are not being continued in the 2008-09 budget.

"A nightmare," was how Debbi Lerman of the San Francisco Human Services Network described the budget.

"If we listen to mayor’s presentation, everything is rosy, revenue-wise. It’s just a spending problem. But from the community’s perspective, it’s shocking," Lerman said, citing $15.5 million in cuts to the Department of Public Health, $3.5 million in cuts to the Human Services Agency, and a 20 percent cut to domestic violence programs.

"And [the cuts] have been a constantly moving target," Lerman added. "We’re mere weeks away from the implementation of this budget, but no one knows which clients, programs, or services will be lost, though we are sure that there will be a lot of layoffs in our sector. The mayor should not balance his budget on the backs of the poor."

She believes the city needs to look at some non-essential services during a bad budget year and see what can be deferred to the future — and find ways to increase its revenue.

"The mayor is not a stone. He does get it to some degree. But it’s unfortunate that he’s not chosen to put forth revenue measures at this point," Lerman said.

Robert Haaland of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 agrees that the city has a revenue problem. He also believes that it’s not OK to ask the city’s lowest-paid workers to make concessions, again and again: "[SEIU 1021] has repeatedly stepped up to the table, we’d like to see some others do it."

Jonathan Vernick, executive director of Baker’s Place, which is facing the prospect of having to close one floor of its medical detox program, argues that many of the mayor’s proposed cuts are in conflict with Newsom’s stated goal of getting the homeless and inebriated off the street. "Ironically, this budget seems to fail to meet a simple criteria — that the proposed cut actually saves money," Vernick said. "All I can see is cuts that by end of fiscal year will have dismantled a system that’s been working for 35 years."

John Eckstrom of the Haight Ashbury Clinics believes the budget cuts will decimate the model of integrated services. "These are very deep cuts," said Eckstrom, who expects to lay off 40 to 50 of his 170 employees.

"It’s a testament to the willpower of the nonprofits that we are able to stay alive," Eckstrom said. "But what are the mayor’s priorities? There’s his rhetoric that says it’s not a revenue problem, and then there’s the reality."

With the Board of Supervisors set to conduct public budget hearings throughout June, Board President Aaron Peskin sees Newsom’s proposal as a "law and order budget."

"Domestic violence programs have lost $750,000 in funds, substance abuse programs have been taken to the woodshed, and mental health programs are being cut by 25 percent," said Peskin, criticizing the mayor for "introducing and extolling new programs while failing to protect the safety net of human and health services that San Francisco has put together over many years."

"Last time we had a budget like this, Mayor Willie Brown was much more forthright and honest about its disastrous impact on the poor," Peskin added. "This administration has cloaked this disaster in a press blitz. But any way you dress it, it’s a pig."

As chair of the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee, Sup. Jake McGoldrick was equally blunt in his criticisms as he set about deciphering the details of Newsom’s proposal

McGoldrick refuted as "a deception" Newsom’s claim of having cut 1,085 jobs. "The real number is 99.08 positions," McGoldrick said, factoring in preexisting vacancies, Newsom’s three proposed police academy classes, and the 26 staff positions for Newsom’s 311 program, not to mention other new proposed programs and initiatives.

Upset that Newsom has budgeted $500,000 for a Community Justice Court that will divert people to the kinds of programs that Newsom’s budget is undermining, McGoldrick told the Guardian that he "aims to identify at least $30 million to $40 million in deceptions and redirect these funds to top priority human needs and services that are already woefully underfunded."

"The mayor is trying to pump all the problems over to the Board of Supervisors," McGoldrick said. "It’s going to be a labor of love to figure out how to direct money to folks who are hurting now."

Peskin said he expects the supervisors to discuss three new revenue proposals in the next month in order to avoid another slash-and-burn budget next year. These proposals include a property transfer tax, closing a payroll tax loophole on partnerships, and preserving the city’s 911 fee, which is under legal attack.

As of press time, the Mayor’s Office had not returned calls about revenue creation. Maybe Newsom’s handlers were busy figuring out how to deal with a budget protest slated for 6 p.m. June 11 outside the his residence in the Bellaire Tower building, 1101 Green St.

Organized by Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, the protest aims to draw attention to what Friedenbach calls "Mayor Newsomator’s plans to terminate the poor."

These plans include closing the Ella Hill Hutch Homeless Shelter as well as the Tenderloin Health Homeless Drop-in, and the almost total elimination of the SRO Families United Program. The Board has until July 31 to adopt a revised budget.