Budget Fat at San Francisco City Hall

by Randy Shaw on February 17, 2009

As city departments cut vital health and tenant protection programs, one might conclude that the obvious targets for cost savings have already been hit. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In fact, compelling evidence of budget fat is located within City Hall, with multiple staff earning six-figure salaries for jobs that neither provide a direct service nor are supervisory. Why does Mayor Newsom need an Education Advisor? Why are we funding the head of Communities of Opportunity, after that group has squandered $3 million and been found wanting by the Budget Analyst? Why keep several high paid “greening” positions when the Obama Administration is committed to battling climate change and San Francisco no longer needs to fund such positions out of local dollars? Cutting these positions and other budget fat will not alone solve the city’s fiscal crisis, but it will help convince voters that the city has its fiscal house in order, and that preserving the city’s basic services requires revenue increases.

Feedback to Beyond Chron (and some is not for publication) indicates surprisingly broad opposition to proposed local tax hikes or other revenue increases. Progressives who typically support such measures argue that they do not want to pay more taxes and fees while obvious budget fat remains.

City Hall Bloat

Most ire is directed at less than essential but highly paid positions at City Hall. Every mayoral administration is accused of hiring excessive staff, but the city’s unprecedented budget crisis has many wondering why the following jobs have avoided the chopping block:

1. The Mayor’s Greening Director

During the Bush years, Mayor Newsom correctly saw that San Francisco should become a model for promoting sustainability. But climate control is a federal responsibility, and now that we have a president committed to the issue, San Francisco no longer needs to run its own greening operation funded by local taxpayers.

Consider that San Francisco has a Department of the Environment, whose Director earns a six-figure salary, and a Department of Climate Change, with its own highly paid director. Why does Mayor Newsom also need to be advised by a Greening Director?

And as schools are being decimated by cutbacks, why is San Francisco also funding a Sustainability Coordinator for the School District?

2. Communities of Opportunity (COO)

Although this failed program is dying a slow death (understandably, given this report from the budget analyst), its well-paid Director still has a city-funded job. Whatever this individual is doing could easily be taken over by another agency.

3. Deputy Chief of Staff for Health and Human Services

The major component of this position is linking health and human service work to the Mayor’s Office. But there is no reason why the Mayor cannot get whatever information he needs from his two veteran department heads (Mitch Katz of Public Health, and Trent Rhorer of Human Services), rendering this middle person entirely unnecessary.

4. The Mayor’s Education Adviser

This position duplicates the work of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, the Superintendent of Schools (with whom the Mayor is particularly close and spends considerable time) and the Mayor’s own press office.

5. Head of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice

This position has been questioned from the time of Republican Kevin Ryan’s appointment, and really makes no sense as so many of its departmental functions have been eliminated. This position alone costs San Francisco $200,000.

This is a perfect example of an institutional perk that prior Mayors have enjoyed but that the city can no longer afford. Considering that we have an elected an autonomous District Attorney, Public Defender, and Sheriff, a Chief Probation Officer, and Fire and Police Chiefs accountable to separate commissions, we must stop prolonging the fiction that San Francisco needs to spend $200,000 for someone to allegedly “coordinate” law enforcement department heads and advise the Mayor on criminal justice issues.

6. Violence Prevention Director

With many departments working on violence prevention (the SFPD, the Critical Incidence Response Team under DPH, Community Response Networks under DCYF), this seems like another position that is great to have in boom times but which should be eliminated amidst the current fiscal crisis.

7. Half the Mayor’s Press Office

During these tough budget times, San Francisco cannot afford to pay the salaries and benefits for four people to do media services for the mayor. This staffing is particularly excessive considering the many city departments that have their own press staff.

8. The San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

Last week, I visited the wonderful Fillmore Jazz Heritage Center and its exhibition on the Fillmore as the Harlem of the West. It reminded me not simply of the destructiveness of the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, but how even when it is not wrecking and gentrifying communities its general operations divert millions of dollars from the city’s general fund.

Why is the budget of an Agency with such a failed track record politically off-limits? I have no expectations that this longstanding waste of taxpayer funds will change, but defenders of Redevelopment waste should recognize that its perpetuation makes the passage of tax hikes and fee increases much more difficult.

And that’s the heart of the problem.

Credibility Gap

Those fighting to save public health and other services have an anchor around their legs: politically protected city positions and programs that turn even progressive voters against new revenue measures. When voters allocate new funding for MUNI in the November 2007 elections, and then learn that other city departments are raiding these funds (for example, DPH now bills MUNI for the cost of medical care for victims of bus accidents), it makes it harder than ever to convince voters that future tax hikes and revenue measures will be spent on their priorities.

That’s why the obvious examples of unnecessary spending specified above should not be shrugged off as saving too little money to make a difference. Such spending is symbolic, and until expunged from the budget, they remain perfect fodder for campaign literature and talking points by opponents of the new tax measures San Francisco desperately needs.

Filed under: Archive