Saving SF’s human services

Pub date March 24, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL San Francisco stands to get more than $50 million in federal stimulus money designed to prevent cuts to health and human services. That could be a huge help to the city’s efforts to close a half-billion dollar budget gap. And the Department of Public Health is counting on its $27 million share to prevent layoffs and program closures.

But the city’s Human Services Agency, which ought to be able to spend some $25 million in federal money to keep alive programs for the homeless and the needy, is refusing to include that revenue as part of its budget for next year. That’s a terrible mistake that will literally cost lives.

The money comes under the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage program, known as FMAP. When President Obama announced that the additional funding would be available to cities and states Feb. 23, he specifically stated that the cash should prevent a loss of services: "This plan will also help ensure that you don’t need to make cuts to essential services Americans rely on now more than ever," he told the nation’s governors at a press event.

Somehow, though, Mayor Gavin Newsom doesn’t see it that way. The Newsom administration seems to believe that since the money is a one-time grant, it shouldn’t be used to pay salaries and keep ongoing operations afloat. That has infuriated critics, like Sup. John Avalos, who chairs the Budget Committee. "I’d like to see us use the money to prevent cuts to human services," he told the Guardian. "I think maybe the Newsom people want to make cuts and eliminate service programs anyway, and this doesn’t fit their plan."

We’re talking about employment services, homeless supportive housing, the Tenderloin drop-in scenter, job training for homeless people, and more essential services. Obviously, the city is facing a spike in unemployment and homelessness — the last thing that makes financial or policy sense is to cut the programs that unemployed and homeless people rely on.

We understand the problems with one-time federal grants. Money like that is typically put toward one-time uses — setting up a new program that will have to find its own funding later, or building something, or funding a temporary position. Use one-year grants for regular operating expenses and you run into trouble when the money is gone.

But this is an emergency situation, and the money that Washington is handing out is designed specifically to prevent cuts to health and human services. The stimulus money is supposed to be spent, now — and saving jobs, programs, and lives by preventing further budget cuts is exactly the sort of thing Obama intended when he made the money available.

But this is the best Newsom’s press flak, Nathan Ballard, can offer: "The mayor has not decided yet how this additional revenue will be used to solve the city’s $575 million budget shortfall," Ballard wrote us, "and he and his staff will be working with the directors of the DPH and HSA throughout the course of this decision-making process."

Mayor Newsom ought to be doing two basic things right now: Looking for every dollar that’s on the table or can be grabbed from somewhere to prevent the worst of this year’s budget cuts, and convening meetings and putting together a proposal to fix the city’s long-term revenue problems. We suggested holding a special election this spring or summer to put some new tax measures before the voters, but Newsom opposed that idea — and it’s looking less and likely to happen. But there’s no way to pass a credible budget in this city without planning for, and counting on, some significant revenue package in November.

Newsom’s still acting as if this budget crisis is nothing much to worry about. It’s time he took it seriously.