Scraping bottom

Pub date January 27, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe

The job of scrubbing down a city bus after it’s gone out of service is no picnic. At a Jan. 20 Budget and Finance Committee hearing called by Sup. Chris Daly to discuss health and safety impacts related to Municipal Transportation Agency layoffs, supervisors took a virtual tour of a Muni bus that was trashed on multiple levels: tagged inside and out, soiled with vomit, and strewn with garbage. Among the roughly 100 Muni workers who will lose their jobs to midyear budget cuts are 10 “car cleaners” — those unsung heroes who scrub away late into the night, tackling the residue left behind by the Sharpie-wielding, litterbug masses.

“We do send out all of our vehicles clean,” MTA spokesperson Judson True told the Budget and Finance Committee members at the hearing. “We do not send out any of our vehicles with any health issues … and we will not.” Despite his assurances, members of the Board of Supervisors and some Muni staffers voiced fears that with fewer and more overworked car cleaners, the overall experience of riding public transit could suffer.

It’s just one small example of on-the-ground impacts of painful budget cuts inflicted to solve a steep shortfall affecting the city’s transit agency. The fiscal woes aren’t unique to Muni. In coming months, San Francisco city departments across the board will have to contend with revenue shortfalls and find ways to continue providing services with diminished resources.

But with layoffs and other proposals such as raising fares, reducing service, and charging more for discount passes on the table, many are raising objections — including several members of the MTA Board of Directors, a body that is wholly appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom. In a rare show of defiance at a Jan. 19 MTA Board meeting, several directors even resuscitated the idea of extending parking-meter hours and raising meter fees to generate new transit revenue, an idea Newsom previously rejected.


Muni has lost $180 million in state funding over the last three years due to “the nightmare in Sacramento,” as True put it, and no one seems to believe the fiscal crisis can be resolved without some degree of pain.

At the Jan. 19 MTA Board meeting, transit agency Chief Financial Officer Sonali Bose outlined the dismal financial picture, explaining that Muni has been hit hard by declining parking and taxi fees and impacts to the city’s general fund, leaving it about $49 million in the hole for the current budget cycle. After the layoffs, Muni will still face a $17 million problem. To solve it, suggestions include jacking up the historic F Line trolley fare from $3 to $5, charging $30 for discount monthly passes for seniors and passengers with disabilities, and reducing service.

Even against the gloomy fiscal backdrop, the prospect of eliminating jobs to make up for the losses drew serious concerns from MTA directors. “Once somebody’s gone, they’re gone,” Director Shirley Breyer Black noted. “I think moving forward with cuts in these classifications will send us into deeper fiscal crisis.”

All the affected workers — most of them frontline employees — are slated to lose their jobs by May 1, and around one-third of them were dismissed Jan. 22.

Muni Executive Director and CEO Nathaniel Ford emphasized that the decision to cut jobs was not made lightly. But at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting the following day, progressive members of the Board of Supervisors expressed alarm after hearing union members sound off about how the cuts disproportionately affect lower-paid classifications. The majority of layoffs target members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, San Francisco’s largest labor union, which represents frontline workers across city departments.

“I understand that there are no good decisions,” Daly told the Guardian, adding that a certain group of workers seem to bearing the brunt of the cuts. “What progressive supervisors are calling for is for the budget to be handled more evenly,” he said.

A single Municipal Executives’ Association (MEA) employee — an MTA manager earning between $105,950 and $135,200 per year — was let go during this latest round of about 100 Muni layoffs, according to an agency memo. In the past year, MTA reduced its upper-level management team from 108 to 96 employees. In contrast, 33 members of SEIU Local 1021 — the majority frontline workers earning between $45,656 and $64,272 a year — will be affected by the cuts.

“Unfortunately, when MTA discovered that they had a budget problem, they didn’t bring all parties to the table,” SEIU Organizer Leah Berlanga testified at the Budget and Finance Committee hearing. “The way we got invited was via pink slips. That’s the only time they will talk to people who do direct services.”

When asked whether Muni had assessed mid- and upper-management level jobs to even the scales, True responded that a few mid-level managers were included in the latest round of cuts. One reason the layoffs seem disproportionate, he added, is that there are so many more frontline workers than others. “The budget picture has affected the entire agency,” he said. “No one is happy about these decisions.”

But SEIU Local 1021 characterized the layoffs as misguided, and attempted to identify waste and mismanagement within the agency in a packet of alternative cost-saving measures it submitted to MTA. At the top of the list was the suggestion that the agency eliminate 35 retired Muni employees, who are allowed to work up to 960 hours per year and earn wages in addition to their pensions. And according to the union, there are 21 temporary workers in the agency who’ve exceeded a two-year limit for short-term employment. SEIU recommended that those temps be dismissed too.

SEIU also criticized the decision to lay off 24 parking control officers (PCOs) — uniformed workers who have the unenviable job of issuing parking citations to bring in revenue for the city. “To me, if you do the simple math, it doesn’t make any sense. They make most of the money for the MTA,” said a PCO who testified at the hearing.

According to SEIU’s calculations, eliminating 24 employees who dole out parking tickets could result in a $7.2 million loss for the city in parking revenue. But True said MTA disagrees with this figure, and pointed to an internal memo showing how revenue from parking citations dropped in recent years even as more PCOs were hired. Nonetheless, at the urging of SEIU, the MTA Board agreed to postpone those 24 layoffs until February to buy time to study the impact. For other positions, negotiations between MTA and the union are ongoing. The details on still more layoffs, which will affect transit operators, is yet to come.

Sup. David Campos is asking for a management audit to see if Muni is spending its money efficiently. “I think we should look at best practices and how we’re operating before we finalize any cuts,” he said.


During a round of MTA budget talks last fall, the idea of extending city parking meter hours and raising meter fees was floated as a means of recouping losses — but Newsom balked at the idea, saying higher parking fees could harm small businesses. Now MTA Director Bruce Oka has revived — and endorsed — the concept.

“I can hold my nose and vote on anything, but I refuse to vote on something when I believe we have not looked under a rock for every source of funding,” Oka said at the meeting. “We have to extend the parking meter hours — we have to find dollars. If Room 200 [i.e. Newsom] doesn’t want that to happen, well then … he’s got to come up with a way to do what we need to do. If he’s not going to raise parking meters or extend parking meter time, he’s got to come up with some money.”

Tom Radulovich, executive director of nonprofit Livable City and one of the individuals who helped to create MTA in 1999, summed up Oka’s comments with a note of surprise: “He really called out the mayor,” he said. “I haven’t seen MTA Board members do that — they usually cover for him.”

Radulovich — who is also on the BART Board — says targeting motorists for more revenue instead of transit riders would be more equitable, sustainable, and in keeping with the city’s Transit First goals in the long run. Proposition A, passed November 2007, established “a strong mandate to reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions,” he pointed out. But, he noted, with layoffs that could affect the qualify of service and possibly deter people from riding, “We don’t see how MTA is going to get to those voter-mandated transit goals.” *



Saturday, Feb. 6, 10 a.m. to noon

Tuesday, Feb. 9, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Saturday, Feb. 20, 10 a.m. to noon

One South Van Ness Ave. at Market Street, 2nd Floor Atrium


Friday, Jan. 29, 10 a.m.; discussion of FY10 options, including Muni service reductions

Tuesday, Feb. 16, 11 a.m.; public hearing on proposed FY10 budget actions

Tuesday, Mar. 2, 2 p.m.; public hearing and possible board approval of FY10 budget actions

Location: City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place, Room 400