Round one

Pub date June 3, 2009
WriterSarah Phelan

The Board of Supervisors’ narrowly thwarted attempt to reject the Municipal Transportation Agency’s 2009-10 budget was the first in a wave of anticipated showdowns between Mayor Gavin Newsom and the progressives this summer as budget season gets underway.

The mayor appeared to win this particular showdown when the board voted 6-5 not to reject the MTA deal May 27, although the skirmish helped progressives voice their concerns over Newsom’s budget priorities. It also gave board President David Chiu the opportunity to conduct a masterful interrogation of MTA executive director Nat Ford that set the stage for Sup. John Avalos to try to place a charter amendment on the November ballot that would make MTA more accountable and accessible.

That said, the final MTA deal — which closes a $129 million deficit on the backs of Muni riders (through service cuts and fare hikes) rather than motorists (MTA governs all parking revenue) by a ratio of about 4-1 — seems to be inconsistent with San Francisco’s official "transit-first" policy.

Chiu was the first to suggest rejecting the deal when it became clear that the Mayor’s Office has been using the MTA as a backdoor ATM, authorizing $66 million in work orders for things like salaries for Newsom’s environmental aides and compensating the police department for vaguely defined security services.

The practice made a mockery of Prop. A., which voters approved in 2007 to increase funding to Muni by $26 million annually. But since then, work orders from unrelated city departments, including the police and Newsom’s 311 call center, had increased by $32 million.

"If people have to pay more for less, they will stop taking Muni," Chiu said at the May 6 Budget Committee hearing on the MTA budget.

Sup. David Campos also took issue with the work orders and service cuts. "Whatever money riders of Muni pay into the system should be used for public transportation," Campos said.

In the end, Chiu got the agency to trim $10 million from its budget, restore $8.6 million in proposed Muni service cuts, and delay the increases that seniors, youth, and the disabled will pay for fast passes. In exchange the board voted 6-5 May 12 to drop its MTA’s budget challenge, allowing fares to increase to $2 and for services to be reduced. Sups. Campos, Avalos, Ross Mirkarimi, Chris Daly, and Eric Mar dissented.

"We needed to work this out so we can move forward on the myriad issues before us," Chiu said.

But led by Avalos, who chairs the board’s powerful Budget and Finance Committee, the progressives revived the issue the next day. "Given our grave economic crisis, we owe it to seniors, youth, and other low-income Muni riders to come up with a better budget, one that ensures Muni accessibility and accountability," Avalos said.

Instead of increasing fares and cutting services, Avalos suggested that the MTA extend meter hours to evenings and Sundays. For a moment, it looked as if the progressives would be able to muster the seven votes needed to reject the deal. Ultimately Chiu, Sophie Maxwell, and the other MTA budget opponents stuck to the deal, which was reapproved May 27.

But the episode underscores why Avalos wants to reform the composition of the MTA board. Currently the mayor appoints all seven members. The only thing the supervisors can do is confirm or reject his nominations.

The mayor also appoints MTA’s executive director. Under Newsom, Ford was hired to the post for $316,000 annually, making him the city’s highest paid employee and someone who feels accountable to the mayor. "In all the cities, the mayor takes the heat for the transit system," Ford told the Guardian when challenged on his agency’s seeming lack of independence.

But under Avalos’ amendment, the mayor and the Board of Supervisors would each nominate three board commissioners while voters would elect the seventh. "The new MTA board composition will create greater checks and balances and also ensure that the MTA director is not solely accountable to one person, but to a board that is more representative of the city and county of San Francisco," Avalos said.

MTA now faces an additional $10 to $16 million deficit, thanks to union negotiations and fears that the state will raid city property tax and gas tax coffers. But as part of his budget deal with Chiu, Ford promised that the agency would study extending parking meter enforcement hours to close the gap.

Confirming that the agency dropped a $9 million a year proposal to extend meter hours citywide after receiving input from merchants, Ford said that "we’ll clearly have to revisit parking. We’ll be looking at how to administer extended meter hours, and how that impacts churches if we do it Sundays. But we are sitting here with a structural deficit that’s been going on for decades. We need to figure out the revenue streams we need to enhance the system."

Campos thought that a progressive Board of Supervisors should have gotten a better MTA budget. "As Sup. John Avalos and I pointed out, there’s almost nothing different between this budget and what was presented last week," Campos said. "I think it’s an illustration of how it is not enough to have power. You have to be willing to use it."

But Chiu defended his deal as a necessary way out of the board conflict with Newsom’s office. "Nat Ford has committed publicly and privately that he will propose meter hour change. And MTA Board President Tom Nolan has committed that he will ensure that car owners pick up more of the burden, and that if the budget gets worse, the additional problems won’t be balanced on the backs of Muni riders, which was not something we heard last week," Chiu said.

Avalos was less sanguine: "It was a clear moment for the Board of Supervisors to support transit-first and the city’s most vulnerable residents."

But he felt that concerns about the deal, and the realization that Newsom is an increasingly absent mayor, will help voters see the need for MTA reform.

"There wasn’t a single MTA commissioner or director accessible or accountable to the greater part of San Francisco. But they were responsive to Room 200, the Mayor’s Office," Avalos said. "Clearly, we need greater checks and balances."

Mirkarimi observed how, when faced with a crisis, people make practical decisions. "What gets lost when we are in crisis mode is our larger objective," he said. "We are a transit-first city that has strong climate change legislation, and Mayor Gavin Newsom is constantly campaigning on green issues. So it’s counterintuitive for us to broker an MTA budget on the backs of Muni riders and not understand that this deal could diminish that ridership."

But MTA spokesperson Judson True believes that what got lost in the discussion is that, as a result of Proposition A, the agency adopted a two-year budget that slapped drivers with increased rates and fees in 2008 while Muni riders and services were mostly spared.

Things changed, True said, when the economy tanked in 2008 and the MTA was left facing an unprecedented deficit. "At that point we reopened the budget and put everything on the table," True said.

Either way, Chiu has been urging supervisors to move on and focus on the next big thing: the mayor’s budget. "There’s a half-billion dollar hole in this budget," Chiu said last week. "It’ll make this debate look like child’s play."

Steven T. Jones contributed to this report.