Another bloody budget

Pub date June 8, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe

In the days since June 1, when Mayor Gavin Newsom unveiled his proposal for San Francisco’s $6.48 billion budget for the next fiscal year, public sector employees and community organizations have been poring over the hefty document to determine how their jobs, services, and programs survived cuts made to close a $483 million shortfall.

For police and firefighters, a key Newsom constituency, the news is good. There were no layoffs to San Francisco firefighters, and while members of the Police Officer’s Association gave up $9.3 million in wage concessions under the lucrative contract Newsom gave them a few years ago, police officers will still receive a 4 percent wage increase on July 1.

For others, the release of the mayor’s budget signified a tough fight looming before the Board of Supervisors, one with high stakes. Cuts to homeless services, mental health care, youth programs, and housing assistance, along with privatization proposals, have raised widespread concern among labor and liberal advocacy organizations. Public input on the budget will continue at the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee until July 15, when the amended document is considered by the full board.

At a June 1 announcement ceremony, Newsom asserted that the budget was balanced “without draconian cuts,” saying, “We were able to avoid the kind of cataclysmic devastation that some had argued was inevitable in this budget.”

Nearly a week later, Board President David Chiu told the Guardian that sort of cataclysm wouldn’t be staved off for long if the city continues on the course of repeatedly making deep budget cuts without proposing any significant new sources of revenue.

“Now that the smoke has cleared, it is clear that the mayor’s proposed budget is perfect for a mayor who is only going to be around for the short term, but it does not address the long-term fiscal crisis that our city is in,” Chiu said. “Next year, we’re looking at over a $700 million budget deficit. The year after that, we’re looking at almost an $800 million budget deficit. The budget proposal that Newsom put out balances the … deficit on many one-time tricks and assumptions of uncertain revenue.”

Meanwhile, advocates said even the cuts proposed this time would bring serious consequences, especially with unemployment on the rise, state programs being cut in Sacramento, and families feeling the pinch more than ever.

“Poor and working class families, and families of color in San Francisco, are facing kind of an assault on funding and on safety net services on multiple levels,” said Chelsea Boilard, family policy and communications associate for Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. “I think a lot of it is that families are concerned about their ability to stay in the city and raise their kids here.”



During the budget announcement, Newsom emphasized the positive. He found $12 million in new revenue simply by closing a loophole that had allowed Internet-based companies to avoid paying that amount in hotel taxes. He said 350 currently occupied positions would be cut, but noted that it was less than a cap of 425 that public sector unions had agreed to. Cuts were inevitable since the ailing economy inflicted the city’s General Fund with significant losses, particularly from business and property tax revenues.

Nonetheless, Newsom’s budget is already coming under fire from progressive leaders. For one, there are no new revenue-generating measures in the form of general taxes, which could have averted the worst blows to critical safety-net services and might help remedy the city’s economic woes in the long-term.

“There are no new taxes in this budget,” Newsom declared. “I know some folks just prefer tax increases. I don’t.”

Yet Chiu said many of Newsom’s assumptions for revenue were on shaky ground, prompting City Controller Ben Rosenfield — Newsom’s former budget director — to place $142 million on reserve in case the projected revenues don’t pan out.

“These budget deficits continue as far as the eye can see,” Chiu noted. “Even if those amounts come in, something like 90 percent of them are one-time fixes. So even if the mayor is right, it doesn’t solve next year’s problem, or the year after. Which is why many of us at the board believe that we have to consider additional revenue proposals to think about the long-term fiscal health of the city.”

Sup. John Avalos, chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, described Newsom’s budget as “pretty much an all-cuts budget,” noting that he and Chiu planned to introduce revenue-generating measures. They were expected to introduce proposals — including an increase in the hotel tax and a change in the business tax — at the June 8 board meeting.

Because despite Newsom’s rosy assessment, many of his proposed cuts are deep and painful: the Recreation and Park Department would be cut by 42 percent (with its capital projects budget slashed by 90 percent), Economic and Workforce Development by 34 percent, Ethics Commission by 23 percent (basically eliminating public financing for candidates), Department of the Environment by 14 percent, Emergency Management by 10 percent, and the list goes on.



Progressives say Newsom’s budget reflects skewed priorities. While relatively little is asked of public safety departments, health and human services programs face major staffing and funding losses. “Poor people are being asked to shoulder the burden,” noted Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness.

Nearly $31 million would be slashed from the Department of Public Health, and more than $22 million would be cut from the Human Services Agency under Newsom’s proposed budget. While this reflects only 2–3 percent of the departmental budgets, there’s widespread concern that the cuts target programs designed to shield the most vulnerable residents.

Proposals that deal with housing are of special concern. “We have more and more families moving into SRO hotel rooms. We have families in garages. We have a really scary situation for many families,” Friedenbach said.

Affordable housing programs within the Mayor’s Office of Housing would get slashed from $16.8 million currently down to just $1.2 million, a 92 percent cut. Other cuts seem small, but will have big impacts of those affected. Newsom’s budget eliminates 42 housing subsidies, which boost rent payments for families on the brink of homelessness, for a savings of $264,000. Meanwhile, a locally funded program that subsidizes housing costs for people with AIDS would be cut, for a savings of $559,000.

Transitional housing would be affected, too, such as 59 beds at a homeless shelter on Otis Street, which Friedenbach says would be lost under Newsom’s budget proposal. “We’ve already lost more than 400 shelter beds since Newsom came to office, so that’d be a huge hit,” she said. Since the recession began, she added, the wait-list at shelters has tripled. The Ark House, a temporary housing facility that serves LGBT youth, would also be closed.

Overall, homeless services delivered by HSA would take a $12 million hit in Newsom’s budget, or about 13 percent, offset slightly by homeless services being increased by $2 million within the Mayor’s Office budget, a 71 percent increase.

Outpatient mental health services, such as Community Behavioral Health Services, would also be affected (See “Cutting from the bottom”), in violation of current city law. Several years ago, then-Sup. Tom Ammiano introduced legislation establishing a “single standard of care” to guarantee access to mental health services for indigent and uninsured residents.

“If timely, effective, and coordinated mental health treatment is not provided to indigent and uninsured residents who are not seriously mentally ill, those residents are at risk of becoming seriously mentally ill and hence requiring more expensive and comprehensive mental health care from San Francisco,” according to the ordinance, which was passed in June of 2005. Newsom’s budget proposes changing this legislation to enable cuts to those services, which would result in 1,600 people losing treatment, according to Friedenbach.

Unfortunately, advocates for the poor has gotten used to this ritual of trying to restore cuts made by Newsom. “There are some sacred cows that seem to survive year after year, and then we’re left fighting over what we can get,” said Randy Shaw, executive director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (THC).

The Central City SRO Collaborative, which supports tenants living in single-room occupancy hotels in the mid-Market Street area and is operated through THC, is slated to be cut by 40 percent along with three other similar programs — a replay from last year when the mayor proposed eliminating funding and the Board of Supervisors restored the cut.

“I think you’d see more fires, more people dying from overdoses. You’d see really bad conditions,” Jeff Buckley, director of the program, told us of the potential consequences of eliminating the inspections and resident training that is part of the program.

Funding was also eliminated for THC’s Ellis Eviction Defense Program, the city’s only free legal defense program with capacity to serve 55 low-income tenants facing eviction under the Ellis Act.



One of the most controversial proposals to emerge from Newsom’s budget is a way for property owners and real estate speculators to buy their way out of the city lottery that limits conversion of rental properties and tenants-in-common (TICs) to privately-owned condos if they pay between $4,000 and $20,000 (depending on how long they have waited for conversion), a proposal to raise about $8 million for the city.

“I went back and forth because I know the Board of Supervisors can’t stand this,” Newsom said as he broached the subject at the June 1 announcement. “I still don’t get this argument completely. Except it’s a big-time ideological discussion. It’s so darn ideological that I think it gets in the way of having a real discussion.”

Yet Ted Gullicksen, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, said the argument is quite clear: making it easier to convert rental units into condos will accelerate the loss of rental housing in a city where two-thirds of residents are tenants, in the process encouraging real estate speculation and evictions.

“It will encourage TIC conversions and evictions because it makes the road to converting TICs to condos that much easier,” Gullicksen said. “It’s going to be a huge gift to real estate speculators.”

Newsom press secretary Tony Winnicker disputes that impact, saying that “these units were going to convert anyway, whether next year or six years. This merely accelerates that conversion without altering the lottery to protect jobs and services.”

But Gullicksen said the proposal obviously undermines the lottery system, which is the only tool tenant advocates have to preserve the finite supply of rent-controlled apartments, noting that even if the condos are later rented out, they will no longer to subject to rent control. That’s one reason why the Board of Supervisors has repeatedly rejected this idea, and why Newsom probably knows they will do so again.

Avalos said he and other progressive supervisors will oppose the proposal, despite the difficulties that will create in balancing the budget. “It’s kind of like putting a gun to our heads,” Avalos said of Newsom’s inclusion of that revenue in his budget.

To offset that revenue loss, Avalos has proposed a tax on alcohol sold in bars and Gullicksen is proposing the city legalize illegal housing units that are in habitable condition for property owners willing to pay an amnesty fee.

Some housing advocates were also struck by the timing of proposing condo conversion fees while also eliminating the Ellis Eviction Defense Program. “We’re really the only ones doing this,” Shaw noted. He said the program is crucial because it serves low-income tenants, many of whom are monolingual Chinese or Spanish speakers who lack the ability to pay for private attorneys to resist aggressive landlords.



The Department of Children, Youth. and Families budget would be reduced by 20 percent under Newsom’s budget, with the greatest cuts affecting after school and youth leadership programs. Roughly a $3 million cut will result in the loss of around 300 subsidized slots for after school programs, said Boilard of Coleman Youth Advocates. Another $3 million is expected to come out of violence-prevention programs for troubled youth; an additional $1 million would affect youth jobs programs.

Patricia Davis, a Child Protective Services employee who lives in the Mission District with her two teenage sons, said she was concerned about the implications for losses to youth programs, particularly during the summer. “You can imagine what’s going to happen this summer,” she said. “I feel that a lot of kids are going to do a lot of things that they have no business doing.”

Davis, who says she’ll have to look for a new job come Sept. 30 because the federal stimulus package funding that supports her position will run out, said she was not happy to hear that police officers would be getting raises just as that summer school programs are being threatened with closure. “Couldn’t the 4 percent [raise] go somewhere else — like to the children?” she wondered.

Meanwhile, privatization proposals are causing anxiety for SEIU Local 1021 members, who recently gave millions in wage concessions and furloughs along with other public employees to help balance the budget. A proposal to contract out for jail health services cropped up last year and was shot down by the board, but it’s back again.

“When you make it a for-profit enterprise, the bottom line is the profit. It’s not about the health care,” SEIU Local 1021 organizer Gabriel Haaland told us. “It isn’t the same quality of care.”

Haaland said he believes the mayor’s assumption that the proposal could save $13 million should be closely examined. Other privatization schemes would contract out for security at city museums and hospitals.

Institutional police in the mental health ward at SF General Hospital and other sensitive facilities are well trained and experienced with difficult situations so, Haaland said, “the workers feel a lot safer” than they would with private contractors.

Regarding Newsom’s privatization proposal, Avalos said the board was “opposed last year and the year before, and we’ll oppose [them] this year.”

In the coming weeks, Avalos and other members of the Budget and Finance Committee will carefully go over Newsom’s proposed budget — which is now being sized up by Budget Analyst Harvey Rose’s office — and solicit input from the public. Chances are, they’ll get an earful.

“People are scared. They are scared to death right now,” Boilard said. “As it is, people’s hours are being reduced. And it’s getting harder and harder to find a job because so many people are out of work that the level of competition has gotten really fierce. This is the time that we need to invest in safety net services for young people and families more than ever — and all those services and programs and relationships that people depend on are disappearing.”

Steven T. Jones and Kaitlyn Paris contributed to this report.