Without a net

Pub date February 4, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe

› news@sfbg.com

The Board of Supervisors heard more than four hours of public comment at its Jan. 27 meeting, as hundreds of labor representatives, public-health workers, homeless advocates, hospital staffers, and others crowded into the board chambers to sound off on the deep budget cuts that many charged would leave they city’s critical-services safety net in shreds.

The message was chilling.

On the ground, the budget cuts Mayor Gavin Newsom is proposing translate into staggering losses in services that segments of the city’s most disadvantaged populations rely on. Among those who will lose their jobs: some San Francisco General Hospital staffers who are trained to watch the cardiac monitors. "They are the first responders when someone goes into cardiac arrest," nurse Leslie Harrison told the board during public comment. "This is a life and death job — literally."

The Huckleberry House, which was established in 1967 and provides assistance to more than 7,000 homeless youth each year, may face closure.

Homeless shelters are already being forced to turn away two out of three clients seeking a bed due to lack of space, according to Coalition on Homelessness Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach.

Demand for hot meals from the St. James Infirmary, a clinic for uninsured sex workers, has tripled since the onset of the recession, Executive Director Naomi Akres told the Guardian. As a result of the cuts, the clinic will lose its ability to continue either the food program or an outreach program that aims to get people off the streets.

Other areas that face funding reductions, according to a tally of midyear reductions issued by the mayor’s office, include some programs that administer STD testing and HIV prevention services, the Adult Day Health programs at Laguna Honda Hospital, aid for foster care, and the Single Room Occupancy Collaborative (which assists low-income tenants living in dilapidated hotel rooms across the city). San Francisco’s Human Services Agency will lay off 67 staffers.

Of the $118 million in midyear cuts rolled out by the mayor’s office last December, some $46 million will be shed from health, human welfare, and neighborhood-development services.

The midyear reductions, which will begin to take effect Feb. 20, are aimed at addressing a steep drop-off in revenue for the 2008–09 fiscal year. Now, health and human services providers and others across the board are anxiously looking ahead to the next round of blows, which will be dealt to address a projected $576 million deficit for the 2009–10 fiscal year, which begins in July. That figure could be reduced to $461 million after budget cuts, according to Deputy Controller Monique Zmuda.

Newsom has known about the gravity of the current budget problem since late October, when City Controller Ben Rosenfield issued a memo projecting fiscal disaster. "Since the adoption of the budget in July, the City’s economic outlook has significantly worsened, particularly since the onset of the global financial market upheavals that began in September," the memo states. It goes on to predict a worst-case scenario of $125 million in tax-revenue shortfalls for the 2008–09 fiscal year.

Cuts in frontline services don’t have to be the only answer. Supervisor Chris Daly has introduced an alternative budget proposal, which includes reductions in funding for management positions, cuts in the city’s subsidy to the symphony, and a reduction in the size of the mayor’s press office in an effort to free up funds that could then be diverted back to critical services. "I don’t think any of the choices are good. There’s really only the lesser of the evil," Daly noted at the meeting.

The choices the city faces were described in clear terms. "I’m sorry to say it, but you have some tough decisions in front of you," Friedenbach told supervisors when it was her turn at the podium during public comment. "You have to choose between abused children, or the symphony. You have to choose whether you want to decimate the mental-health treatment system — or do you want to get rid of the newly hired managers since the hiring freeze? You have to decide whether you want to cut half of the substance-abuse treatment system — or do you want to create a new community justice center that will have nowhere to refer its defendants?" Rather than choose, however, supervisors voted 6–5 to send Daly’s alternative package back to the Budget and Finance Committee for further consideration. The swing vote was Board President David Chiu, who was elected president with the support of the progressive bloc.

Had Chiu voted for Daly’s alternative, it wouldn’t have mattered much — the mayor would almost certainly have vetoed it.

Eight supervisors — enough to override a veto — did demonstrate a willingness to move forward with a June special election. With Supervisors Sean Elsbernd, Michela Alioto-Pier, and Carmen Chu dissenting, the board voted to waive deadlines that would have prevented new tax measures from being placed on a June 2 ballot.

Several different tax ideas are under discussion. According to a list of preliminary estimates calculated by the Office of the Controller, slight increases over the current rates of taxes levied on business registration, payroll, sales, hotel-room stays, commercial utility users, parking, property transfers, and Access Line fees together could bring the city an estimated $121.6 million per year.

Other proposals include creating parcel taxes for both residential and industrial property, gross-receipts taxes on rental income for commercial and residential properties, a local vehicle license fee, and a residential utility users tax. If all of those proposed new taxes were voted into effect, the city would have the potential to raise an additional $112.9 million.

The problem: under state law, unless the mayor and supervisors unanimously declare an emergency, any tax increase would require a two-thirds vote to pass.

Supervisor John Avalos voiced strong support for the special election. "I think that the people of this city are still grappling with the meaning of the crisis that we’re in," Avalos told his colleagues.

Avalos amended out the possible new parcel tax, increased parking tax, and utility-users taxes, and instead proposed two new revenue measures that could be added to the ballot: a vehicle-impact fee, and "a possible new tax to discourage the consumption of energy that produces a large carbon footprint."

It won’t be easy to pass any of these proposals. Business interests are mobilizing against the very idea of a special election. In an e-mail newsletter distributed by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, a "call to action" urged supporters to contact Supervisors and voice opposition to the emergency election.

The language in the Chamber of Commerce message closely resembled that of Small Business California, which put out a message to the small-business community warning that higher taxes "would be the straw that breaks the already strained back of our local businesses, resulting in more layoffs and acceleration of our downward spiral."

Labor organizer Robert Haaland asked supervisors why they would be afraid of allowing voters to decide on the tax-revenue measures. A poll commissioned by his union, SEIU Local 1021, demonstrated that a significant portion of voters would rather raise revenues than allow vital services to disintegrate.

Even if new revenue is raised, Haaland told us, no one is under the illusion that there won’t be painful cuts. "Everyone’s going to feel some pain," he said. "It’s a question of how much pain."