Holiday blues

Pub date December 2, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe

Ethea Farahkhan lost her city job Nov. 29, when a round of city layoffs impacting front-line workers took effect.
Farahkhan, a woman of color who was an administrative assistant at San Francisco’s Department of Children, Youth and their Families, said she would have a job if it weren’t for Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision not to spend money approved by the Board of Supervisors to save people from job losses during the holiday season.

The layoffs rippled through city government as DPH employees with seniority exercised “bumping rights” to replace employees like Farahkhan, who was hired three years ago.

“No one’s in a festive mood. We’re concentrating on making mortgages and buying food to put on our table,” Farahkhan told us when we caught up with her Thanksgiving eve. “I know San Francisco is not exempt from the economic crisis,” she added, “but I feel like our mayor is out of touch. He’s never been in this position.”

If DPH layoff had been covered by existing funds and incoming grant money, as directed by a veto-proof, 8-3 vote of the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 24, she said, “I would definitely have a job to go to.” Instead, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced after the board vote that he was refusing to spend the reallocated funding to halt the 478 DPH layoffs and reassignments.

Farahkhan’s union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, spent months trying to save these jobs, finally winning over the final supervisor needed to overcome a veto, Sup. Sophie Maxwell, shortly before the vote. Then, for the second time in as many months, the head of the executive branch announced that he would simply ignore the legislative branch.

The impasse doesn’t bode well for a city that’s about to wrestle with a record midyear budget deficit again.
In October, Newsom declared that he would ignore the board’s passage of legislation — by the same 8-3 vote that could override a mayoral veto — to prevent deportation of undocumented youth in custody until they are convicted. It was the first of two actions that seemed to answer the question of whether the mayor is willing to work with the supervisors on the toughest problems facing the city.

That was the question raised last summer when the board discussed a budget analyst’s report that Newsom had either cut or refused to spend about $15.6 million of the $37.5 million that supervisors approved in budget add-backs for the 2008-09 fiscal year. With the mayor cutting 42 percent of program funding that the board fought to restore, trust was already eroding.

During budget deliberation, some progressive supervisors unsuccessfully tried to place hundreds of millions of dollars on reserve, which would give the board some leverage to force Newsom to honor his pledge to work with supervisors on midyear budget cuts, but the board ultimately decided not to do so.

The mayor’s latest rejection came after a long, embittered battle with the union. SEIU members resorted to drastic measures — staging protests in traffic intersections, distributing flyers outside Newsom’s PlumpJack restaurants, barging into his office unannounced singing civil-rights era ballads — to pressure the mayor. But neither those media stunts, nor compromise solutions developed by Sups. John Avalos, Bevan Dufty, and Board President David Chiu, could persuade Newsom to go along with revisiting the DPH cuts.

“Mayor Newsom cannot spend funds the city does not have,” Newsom’s press secretary, Joe Arellano, told the Guardian when asked for an explanation. “The board action didn’t provide any new money — it takes dollars already being used to pay other employees’ salaries.”

The money allocated by the board was already destined for salaries and benefits of other DPH employees, but Sups. Avalos, Chris Daly, and Ross Mirkarimi argued that new federal dollars en route to the city via state and federal channels would bring the department budget back into balance. An estimated $34 million in federal funding is expected to flow into city coffers for health services by mid-2010, but Arellano indicated that the mayor intends to use that money to help balance next year’s deficit.

As the city considers midyear slashes to cope with next year’s monstrous $522 million shortfall, the spirit of cooperation that Newsom publicly emphasized at the outset of last year’s budget cycle now seems dead. Chiu told the Guardian that the only way the board was able to achieve a palatable budget back in July was through controversial partnership with the Mayor’s Office. But when supervisors approached Newsom with alternative solutions for restoring the DPH layoffs, “the mayor was not interested in exploring these different options,” Chiu explained.

Now, Chiu said he’s worried by the implications of the mayor’s defiant approach to the board. “We have two branches of government — legislative and executive. Eleven of us are required to set laws for the city, and the mayor is supposed to carry it out. I hope and believe that the mayor would respect the roles of our respective branches,” Chiu said, carefully choosing his words when asked for his perspective on this trend. “I don’t know how we are going to get through next year if we can’t … not just agree to disagree, but figure out where we agree.”

Chiu’s persistent search for common ground stands in contrast to Daly’s more adversarial approach. In July, just before the board signed off on the 2009-10 budget, Daly floated a proposal to place $300 million on reserve — which would require additional board action to spend, thereby giving supervisors some leverage — but it failed to pass.

Daly also proposed a placing a charter amendment on the ballot that would have required the mayor to fund certain board-approved programs that supervisors deemed especially important. But that failed too when only Sups. Mirkarimi, David Campos and Eric Mar supported it. In a recent conversation with the Guardian, Daly indicated that this possibility could be revived. “It doesn’t matter how many supervisors it takes” to pass legislation, Daly said. “[The mayor] wants to govern unilaterally, and that’s not okay.”

As for the mayor’s latest announcement that he wouldn’t spend the money to restore DPH salaries, Daly said it’s not over yet. “There will be meetings. There will be discussions,” he said. “We’re going to move on this.”

At the same time, midyear cuts are speeding through the pipeline. By Dec. 4, city department heads will have to figure out how to slash their current budgets by 4 percent. By Feb. 20, Newsom is asking for plans to cut an additional 20 percent, plus an extra 10 percent in contingency funding in order to address next year’s gaping deficit.

Those “adjustments,” as they’re called in bureaucratic jargon, promise to be painful. As the next city budget squabble comes into focus on the horizon, the question of revenue measures is still out there and isn’t helped by the current acrimony at City Hall.

Progressive supervisors are also moving to tackle spending areas they deem wasteful, such as a surge in high-dollar management salaries or some of the mayor’s pet projects. Newsom is angling for opening the condo conversion floodgates by letting people buy their way out of the lottery system — a one-time moneymaker that progressives find repugnant because it depletes rental-housing stock.

As the city grows more financially anemic, accusations of mismanagement abound. After the board’s vote on DPH cuts, Newsom was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle saying that progressive supervisors are in a “reality-free zone.”

But Farahkhan and other SEIU employees who are facing layoffs during the holidays believe Newsom is the one who is living on a different planet. “He’s at the top of the pay scale,” Farahkhan said, “and out of touch with everyday working people.”



Service reductions that will affect about half of all Muni routes start Dec. 5, the result of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s early summer deal to close a $129 million budget deficit for the current fiscal year. And that’s just the beginning of the bad news.
Less than halfway through this budget cycle, SFMTA is already looking at an additional $45 million deficit, partly because of the agency’s failure to follow through on plans to increase parking revenue, such as the stalled proposal to extend parking meter hours (see “We want free parking!” Oct. 28).
So additional layoffs and Muni service reductions or even another fare hike are possible, even though Muni fares have already doubled to $2 since Gavin Newsom became mayor. SFMTA officials say midyear budget reduction decisions will be made by the SFMTA Board of Directors over the next two months.
But for now, to find out how this week’s Muni service reductions will affect you, visit (Steven T. Jones)