We’re heading into a lackluster election on Nov. 5. The four incumbents on the ballot have no serious challengers and voter turnout could hit an all-time low. That’s all the more reason to read up on the issues, show up at the polls, and exert an outsized influence on important questions concerning development standards and the fate of the city’s waterfront, the cost of prescription drugs, and the long-term fiscal health of the city.
PROP. A — RETIREE HEALTH CARE TRUST FUND
Note: This article has been corrected from an earlier version, which incorrectly stated that Prop A increases employee contributions to health benefits.
Throughout the United States, the long-term employee pension and health care obligations of government agencies have been used as wedge issues for anti-government activists to attack public employee unions, even in San Francisco. The fiscal concerns are real, but they’re often exaggerated or manipulated for political reasons.
That’s one reason why the consensus-based approach to the issue that San Francisco has undertaken in recent years has been so important, and why we endorse Prop. A, which safeguards the city’s Retiree Health Care Trust Fund and helps solve this vexing problem.
Following up on the consensus pension reform measure Prop. B, which increased how much new city employees paid for lifetime health benefits, this year’s Prop. A puts the fund into a lock-box to ensure it is there to fund the city’s long-term retiree health care obligations, which are projected at $4.4 billion over the next 30 years.
“The core of it says you can’t touch the assets until it’s fully funded,” Sup. Mark Farrell, who has taken a lead role on addressing the issue, told us. “The notion of playing political football with employee health care will be gone.”
The measure has the support of the entire Board of Supervisors and the San Francisco Labor Council. Progressive Sup. David Campos strongly supports the measure and he told us, “I think it makes sense and is something that goes beyond political divides.”
There are provisions that would allow the city to tap the fund in emergencies, but only after it is fully funded or if the mayor, controller, the Trust Board, and two-thirds of the Board of Supervisors signs off, a very high bar. So vote yes and let’s put this distracting issue behind us.
PROP. B — 8 WASHINGTON SPECIAL USE DISTRICT
NO, NO, NO!
Well-meaning people can arrive at different conclusions on the 8 Washington project, the waterfront luxury condo development that was approved by the Board of Supervisors last year and challenged with a referendum that became Prop. C. But Prop. B is simply the developer writing his own rules and exempting them from normal city review.
We oppose the 8 Washington project, as we explain in our next endorsement, but we can understand how even some progressive-minded people might think the developers’ $11 million affordable housing and $4.8 million transit impact payments to the city are worth letting this project slide through.
But Prop. B is a different story, and it’s something that those who believe in honesty, accountability, and good planning should oppose on principle, even if they support the underlying project. Contrary to the well-funded deceptions its backers are circulating, claiming this measure is about parks, Prop. B is nothing more than a developer and his attorneys preventing meaningful review and enforcement by the city of their vague and deceptive promises.
It’s hard to know where to begin to refute the wall of mendacity its backers have erected to fool voters into supporting this measure, but we can start with their claim that it will “open the way for new public parks, increased access to the Embarcadero Waterfront, hundreds of construction jobs, new sustainable residential housing and funding for new affordable housing.”
There’s nothing the public will get from Prop. B that it won’t get from Prop. C or the already approved 8 Washington project. Nothing. Same parks, same jobs, same housing, same funding formulas. But the developer would get an unprecedented free pass, with the measure barring discretionary review by the Planning Department — which involves planners using their professional judgment to decide if the developer is really delivering what he’s promising — forcing them to rubber-stamp the myriad details still being developed rather than acting as advocates for the general public.
“This measure would also create a new ‘administrative clearance’ process that would limit the Planning Director’s time and discretion to review a proposed plan for the Site,” is how the official ballot summary describes that provision to voters.
Proponents of the measure also claim “it empowers voters with the decision on how to best utilize our waterfront,” which is another deception. Will you be able to tweak details of the project to make it better, as the Board of Supervisors was able to do, making a long list of changes to the deal’s terms? No. You’re simply being given the opportunity to approve a 34-page initiative, written by crafty attorneys for a developer who stands to make millions of dollars in profits, the fine details of which most people will never read nor fully understand.
Ballot box budgeting is bad, but ballot box regulation of complex development deals is even worse. And if it works here, we can all expect to see more ballot measures by developers who want to write their own “special use district” rules to tie the hands of planning professionals.
When we ask proponents of this measure why they needed Prop. B, they claimed that Prop. C limited them to just talking about the project’s building height increases, a ridiculous claim for a well-funded campaign now filling mailers and broadcast ads with all kinds of misleading propaganda.
With more than $1 million and counting being funneled into this measure by the developer and his allies, this measure amounts to an outrageous, shameless lie being told to voters, which Mayors Ed Lee and Gavin Newsom have shamefully chosen to align themselves with over the city they were elected to serve.
As we said, people can differ on how they see certain development deals. But we should all agree that it’s recipe for disaster when developers can write every last detail of their own deals and limit the ability of professional planners to act in the public interest. Don’t just vote no, vote hell no, or NO, No, no!
PROPOSITION C — 8 WASHINGTON REFERENDUM
San Francisco’s northeastern waterfront is a special place, particularly since the old Embarcadero Freeway was removed, opening up views and public access to the Ferry Building and other recently renovated buildings, piers, and walkways along the Embarcadero.
The postcard-perfect stretch is a major draw for visiting tourists, and the waterfront is protected by state law as a public trust and overseen by multiple government agencies, all of whom have prevented development of residential or hotel high-rises along the Embarcadero.
Then along came developer Simon Snellgrove, who took advantage of the Port of San Francisco’s desperate financial situation, offered to buy its Seawall Lot 351 and adjacent property from the Bay Club at 8 Washington St., and won approval to build 134 luxury condos up to 12 stories high, exceeding the city’s height limit at the site by 62 percent.
So opponents challenged the project with a referendum, a rarely used but important tool for standing up to deep-pocketed developers who can exert an outsized influence on politicians. San Franciscans now have the chance to demand a project more in scale with its surroundings.
The waterfront is supposed to be for everyone, not just those who can afford the most expensive condominiums in the city, costing an average of $5 million each. The high-end project also violates city standards by creating a parking space for every unit and an additional 200 spots for the Port, on a property with the best public transit access and options in the city.
This would set a terrible precedent, encouraging other developers of properties on or near the waterfront to also seek taller high-rises and parking for more cars, changes that defy decades of good planning work done for the sensitive, high-stakes waterfront.
The developers would have you believe this is a battle between rival groups of rich people (noting that many opponents come from the million-dollar condos adjacent to the site), or that it’s a choice between parks and the surface parking lot and ugly green fence that now surrounds the Bay Club (the owner of which, who will profit from this project, has resisted petitions to open up the site).
But there’s a reason why the 8 Washington project has stirred more emotion and widespread opposition that any development project in recent years, which former City Attorney Louise Renne summed up when she told us, “I personally feel rich people shouldn’t monopolize the waterfront.”
A poll commissioned by project opponents recently found that 63 percent of respondents think the city is building too much luxury housing, which it certainly is. But it’s even more outrageous when that luxury housing uses valuable public land along our precious waterfront, and it can’t even play by the rules in doing so.
Vote no and send the 8 Washington project back to the drawing board.
PROP. D — PRESCRIPTION DRUG PURCHASING
San Francisco is looking to rectify a problem consumers face every day in their local pharmacy: How can we save money on our prescription drugs?
Prop. D doesn’t solve that problem outright, but it mandates our politicians start the conversation on reducing the $23 million a year the city spends on pharmaceuticals, and to urge state and federal governments to negotiate for better drug prices as well.
San Francisco spends $3.5 million annually on HIV treatment alone, so it makes sense that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation is the main proponent of Prop. D, and funder of the Committee on Fair Drug Pricing. Being diagnosed as HIV positive can be life changing, not only for the health effects, but for the $2,000-5,000 monthly drug cost.
Drug prices have gotten so out-of-control that many consumers take the less than legal route of buying their drugs from Canada, because our neighbors up north put limits on what pharmaceutical companies can charge, resulting in prices at least half those of the United States.
The high price of pharmaceuticals affects our most vulnerable, the elderly and the infirm. Proponents of Prop. D are hopeful that a push from San Francisco could be the beginning of a social justice movement in cities to hold pharmaceutical companies to task, a place where the federal government has abundantly failed.
Even though Obamacare would aid some consumers, notably paying 100 percent of prescription drug purchases for some Medicare patients, the cost to government is still astronomically high. Turning that around could start here in San Francisco. Vote yes on D.
With residential and commercial property in San Francisco assessed at around $177 billion, property taxes bring in enough revenue to make up roughly 40 percent of the city’s General Fund. That money can be allocated for anything from after-school programs and homeless services to maintaining vital civic infrastructure.
Former District 4 Sup. Carmen Chu was appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to serve as Assessor-Recorder when her predecessor, Phil Ting, was elected to the California Assembly. Six months later, she’s running an office responsible for property valuation and the recording of official documents like property deeds and marriage licenses (about 55 percent of marriage licenses since the Supreme Court decision on Prop. 8 have been issued to same-sex couples).
San Francisco property values rose nearly 5 percent in the past year, reflecting a $7.8 billion increase. Meanwhile, appeals have tripled from taxpayers disputing their assessments, challenging Chu’s staff and her resolve. As a district supervisor, Chu was a staunch fiscal conservative whose votes aligned with downtown and the mayor, so our endorsement isn’t without some serious reservations.
That said, she struck a few notes that resonated with the Guardian during our endorsement interview. She wants to create a system to automatically notify homeowners when banks begin the foreclosure process, to warn them and connect them with helpful resources before it’s too late. Why hasn’t this happened before?
She’s also interested in improving system to capture lost revenue in cases where property transfers are never officially recorded, continuing work that Ting began. We support the idea of giving this office the tools it needs to go out there and haul in the millions of potentially lost revenue that property owners may owe the city, and Chu has our support for that effort.
Dennis Herrera doesn’t claim to be a progressive, describing himself as a good liberal Democrat, but he’s been doing some of the most progressive deeds in City Hall these days: Challenging landlords, bad employers, rogue restaurants, PG&E, the healthcare industry, opponents of City College of San Francisco, and those who fought to keep same-sex marriage illegal.
The legal realm can be more decisive than the political, and it’s especially effective when they work together. Herrera has recently used his office to compel restaurants to meet their health care obligations to employees, enforcing an earlier legislative gain. And his long court battle to defend marriage equality in California validated an act by the executive branch.
But Herrera has also shown a willingness and skill to blaze new ground and carry on important regulation of corporate players that the political world seemed powerless to touch, from his near-constant legal battles with PG&E over various issues to defending tenants from illegal harassment and evictions to his recent lawsuit challenging the Accreditation Commission of Community and Junior Colleges over its threats to CCSF.
We have issues with some of the tactics his office used in its aggressive and unsuccessful effort to remove Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi from office. But we understand that is was his obligation to act on behalf of Mayor Ed Lee, and we admire Herrera’s professionalism, which he also exhibited by opposing the Central Subway as a mayoral candidate yet defending it as city attorney.
“How do you use the power of the law to make a difference in people’s lives every single day?” was the question that Herrera posed to us during his endorsement interview, one that he says is always on his mind.
We at the Guardian have been happy to watch how he’s answered that question for nearly 11 years, and we offer him our strong endorsement.
It’s hard not to like Treasurer/Tax Collector Jose Cisneros. He’s charming, smart, compassionate, and has run this important office well for nine years, just the person that we need there to implement the complicated, voter-approved transition to a new form of business tax, a truly gargantuan undertaking.
Even our recent conflicts with Cisneros — stemming from frustrations that he won’t assure the public that he’s doing something about hotel tax scofflaw Airbnb (see “Into thin air,” Aug. 6) — are dwarfed by our understanding of taxpayer privacy laws and admiration that Cisneros ruled against Airbnb and its ilk in the first place, defying political pressure to drop the rare tax interpretation.
So Cisneros has the Guardian’s enthusiastic endorsement. He also has our sympathies for having to create a new system for taxing local businesses based on their gross receipts rather than their payroll costs, more than doubling the number of affected businesses, placing them into one of eight different categories, and applying complex formulas assessing how much of their revenues comes from in the city.
“This is going to be the biggest change to taxes in a generation,” Cisneros told us of the system that he will start to implement next year, calling the new regime “a million times more complicated than the payroll tax.”
Yet Cisneros has still found time to delve into the controversial realm of short-term apartment sublets. Although he’s barred from saying precisely what he’s doing to make Airbnb pay the $1.8 million in Transient Occupancy Taxes that we have shown the company is dodging, he told us, “We are here to enforce the law and collect the taxes.”
And Cisneros has continued to expand his department’s financial empowerment programs such as Bank on San Francisco, which help low-income city residents establish bank accounts and avoid being gouged by the high interest rates of check cashing outlets. That and similar programs are now spreading to other cities, and we’re encouraged to see Cisneros enthusiastically exporting San Francisco values, which will be helped by his recent election as president of the League of California Cities.
SUPERVISOR, DIST. 4
With just six months on the job after being appointed by Mayor Ed Lee, Sup. Katy Tang faces only token opposition in this race. She’s got a single opponent, accountant Ivan Seredni, who’s lived in San Francisco for three years and decided to run for office because his wife told him to “stop complaining and do something,” according to his ballot statement.
Tang worked in City Hall as a legislative aide to her predecessor, Carmen Chu, for six years. She told us she works well with Sups. Mark Farrell and Scott Wiener, who help make up the board’s conservative flank. In a predominantly Chinese district, where voters tend to be more conservative, Tang is a consistently moderate vote who grew up in the district and speaks Mandarin.
Representing the Sunset District, Tang, who is not yet 30 years old, faces some new challenges. Illegal “in-law” units are sprouting up in basements and backyards throughout the area. This presents the thorny dilemma of whether to crack down on unpermitted construction — thus hindering a source of housing stock that is at least within reach for lower-income residents — look the other way, or “legalize” the units in an effort to mitigate potential fire hazards or health risks. Tang told us one of the greatest concerns named by Sunset residents is the increasing cost of living in San Francisco; she’s even open to accepting a little more housing density in her district to deal with the issue.
Needless to say, the Guardian hasn’t exactly seen eye-to-eye with the board’s fiscally conservative supervisors, including Tang and her predecessor, Chu. We’re granting Tang an endorsement nevertheless, because she strikes us as dedicated to serving the Sunset over the long haul, and in touch with the concerns of young people who are finding it increasingly difficult to gain a foothold in San Francisco.