What’s wrong with San Francisco?

Pub date July 7, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL In the end, Mayor Gavin Newsom got his way. The San Francisco supervisors made some significant changes to the budget and saved some $40 million worth of programs that the mayor wanted to cut or privatize, but the Newsom for governor ads will still be able to proclaim that the mayor solved his city’s budget problem without raising taxes or cutting police and firefighters.

Instead, this fall some 1,500 city employees are slated to be laid off, 400 of them in the Department of Public Health. Many recreation directors will get pink slips. Human services will lose at least 100 people. Nonprofit service providers will see much of their city funding disappear. The money to pay for public financing of the upcoming supervisorial and mayoral races is gone. Newsom’s pet (and expensive) 311 service will still be open 24 hours a day (with a lot of the money coming from Muni).

Not one of the city’s hugely redundant fire stations will close, even for a few days at a time. The bloated police budget will see no significant cuts, and the cops and firefighters will still get raises. The mayor will continue to employ five people in his press office.

And the only new revenue in the budget comes from fee increases on Muni, public parks, after-school programs, street fairs, restaurants, and the like.

Sup. John Avalos, chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, told us this was the best deal the supervisors could get, and it’s true that the board forced Newsom to add back a lot of money he wanted to cut. But the committee stopped far short of doing what it should have done — fundamentally changing the priorities of the Newsom budget.

Campos told us that he had "mixed feelings" about the deal and expressed concern about the board’s ability to shape midyear cuts and the lack of commitment from Newsom to support support placing revenue measures on the November ballot. Mirkarimi said he was happy with the dollar amounts of the add-backs but proposed holding in reserve some funding for the mayor’s pet projects — a tool for ensuring that Newsom consults with supervisors on the midyear cuts as promised — but Avalos opposed the idea.

Avalos said he’s relying on Newsom’s commitment to him: "The mayor has given me the assurance that he will not make unilateral decisions." But Newsom has a history of breaking such promises.

And the supervisors have not included any new tax revenue in the budget projections. Which puts San Francisco far behind Oakland.

The Oakland City Council has plenty of problems, and the mayor of Oakland, Ron Dellums, has been missing in action on a lot of the city’s problems lately. But when the mayor and the council had to address the budget problems, they came up with a solution that includes at least $6 million in new taxes. While that sounds like a small number, it’s almost 10 percent of Oakland’s budget shortfall. And the new taxes, which will need voter approval in a special July 21 election, are included as part of the budget plan for fiscal 2009-10.

Two of the new taxes — a levy on pot clubs (which the clubs themselves strongly support) and a loophole-closing measure that forces big businesses to pay their fair share of real estate transfer taxes — require only a simple majority vote to take effect. The reason: the council voted unanimously to declare a fiscal emergency and put the measures on the ballot. That allowed the city to avoid the state law that requires a two-thirds vote on most new taxes.

Measures C, D, F, and H make up a generally progressive package that has the support of Council Members Rebecca Kaplan and Jean Quan and Rep. Barbara Lee. We’re happy to endorse all four.

Measure C is a 3 percent increase in the city’s hotel tax, which would rise from 11 percent to 14 percent. Half the new money would go to the Oakland Convention and Visitors Bureau while the other half would be split between the Oakland Zoo, the Chabot Space and Science Center, and cultural arts programs and festivals in the city. We could argue with the distribution (arts festivals should probably get more money and the Visitors Bureau less) but overall, it raises the hotel tax to the level of most other cities in the area and would raise money for the sorts of programs hotel taxes typically fund.

Measure D is a technical amendment to the Oakland Kids First law that mandates spending on programs for children and youth. It changes the spending requirement from 1.5 percent of total city revenues to 3 percent of the general fund. That’s slightly less money than the program currently gets, but a lot more than it has had over the past decade. The coalition that put Kids First on the ballot in 1996 (and modified it in 2008) supports this modest change.

Measure F is a creative new tax. It would impose a 1.8 percent gross receipts tax ($18 per $1,000 in sales) on medical marijuana businesses. Most efforts to hike business taxes face bitter opposition from business owners, but in this case, the pot clubs are happy to pay. In fact, the four dispensaries in Oakland are among the measure’s strongest supporters. Paying taxes tends to legitimize the clubs — and while it’s going to be tricky to track sales in what is still largely a cash business where records have in the past been kept vague to avoid the threat of federal prosecution, this is a strong step in the right direction.

Measure H would prevent big corporations from cheating Oakland out of real estate transfer taxes. Under current law, a business that owns property in Oakland and is bought by another business (or becomes part of a merger) doesn’t have to pay transfer taxes on the property it owns. Closing that loophole could bring in as much as $4.4 million a year.

There’s a lesson here for the much larger city across the Bay.

San Francisco desperately needs new revenue. And while the mayor has talked, in vague terms, about maybe supporting some sort of tax measures in November, he hasn’t committed to anything. There are several proposals floating around the board, the latest of which is a Labor Council-supported tax on alcohol consumption, but no coherent package. The progressives on the board — both those who support the compromise Newsom budget and those who don’t — need to set aside those differences, now, and get to work on finding ways to bring in enough new money to deal with the impacts of further state cuts and stave off some of the layoffs slated for the fall.

The main obstacles are Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Michela Alioto-Pier. Everyone who cares about saving services in this city needs to pressure them to back away from their GOP-style no-new-taxes stands. If those two would at least agree to let the voters decide on new revenue measures, the city would likely get a unanimous board — and the ability to raise taxes with a simple majority vote.

Oakland’s pot club tax and real estate transfer tax are great ideas that can be directly imported to San Francisco. The city’s business tax could be made more progressive (and bring in new revenue) with a simple change in the tax rates (higher on the big outfits, lower on the small ones). We’re dubious about a sales tax increase — even a half-percent hike would bring the local tax rate to 10 percent. And, even though the alcohol tax isn’t exactly progressive, those ideas could be acceptable as part of a package.

The main thing is that the city will need, at minimum, another $100 million this fall, and probably ought to be looking at raising twice that much. Oakland — a city with far fewer resources, a much smaller business base, and radically less wealth — is managing to fight its deficit with progressive taxes. What’s wrong with San Francisco?

P.S.: Sup. Chris Daly was outspoken in his criticism of the budget deal, blasting Newsom and even taking on his former aide and longtime ally, Avalos. But for all his bluster about the mayor, Daly couldn’t bring himself to oppose Anson Moran, Newsom’s nominee for the Public Utilities Commission. Moran was a staunch ally of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. when he was the PUC’s general manager, and the full board should reject him. *