Public Health Cuts Offer New Twist in Budget Fight

by Paul Hogarth on June 20, 2007

“Chris Daly is angry,” said Supervisor Tom Ammiano to me as I walked into the Board chambers to cover the hearing on the Mayor’s cuts to the Health Department. Frankly, the District 6 Supervisor has a lot to be angry about. He made some fatal mistakes that got him kicked off the Budget Committee, but the fact remains that Gavin Newsom has reaped the benefit of the budget process so far – although the Board and the Mayor are supposed to be co-equal branches of government. While many of Daly’s “cuts” that got him in trouble were either to projects that don’t exist yet or were seeking to expand, Newsom refused to spend affordable housing money that an 8-3 Board majority had appropriated.

Now the Board is grappling with $6.9 million in proposed cuts to existing programs, including 17 non-profits who provide front-line health services to the indigent, as well as psychiatric beds at S.F. General Hospital. At last night’s meeting, the Board listened to four hours of public testimony from groups who are fighting for crumbs – when most should be fighting to expand their existing budgets. But Daly told his colleagues before public comment that he didn’t have to stick around to hear the testimony, and gave the most passionate speech I have ever heard him give.

“Every day, I see the face of SRO tenants in our community,” said Tony Robles of the Central City SRO Collaborative, a project of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic (which publishes Beyond Chron.) The four collaboratives that work with hotel tenants – Mission, Chinatown, Central City and Families – are hoping for a modest increase in their budgets from the Health Department: an extra $100,000 for the Families Collaborative, and another $50,000 for Central City so that it receives equal funding as Mission and Chinatown. Instead, the Mayor’s budget proposes a $233,000 cut for that line item, as well as cuts to other groups who work closely with indigent clients.

Hundreds of non-profit service providers and their clients showed up at City Hall yesterday for a full Board hearing to consider the Mayor’s cuts to the Health Department. The hearing was supposed to start at 3:30 p.m., but with other business the Board kept the public waiting for two hours. By the time the hearing started, many had left – and more left as the crowd waited in line for four hours to address the Board. Some had to go home, ironically, to care for children who have mental disabilities.

Such a scene was too much for Chris Daly, who kicked off the item with a fiery speech that questioned the purpose of the Hearing. “The Mayor promotes cuts,” said Daly, “and then ducks for cover – leaving the Board of Supervisors to deal with this crisis. Every year, the Board restores most if not all of these Health Department cuts. This is nothing more than a charade and a significant form of disrespect to the people of San Francisco.”

As I reported two weeks ago, it’s a game that happens again and again. The cuts proposed are to programs that are popular, and who represent a tiny portion of the budget. But it keeps the Board busy listening to four hours of public testimony, while the bulk of the budget remains untouched. Daly pointed out that there were more people at last night’s hearing than had attended the Mayor’s rally last week to protest the Supervisor’s proposed amendments.

But then Daly got personal, as he tied the budget cuts with the Mayor’s substance abuse problems – both admitted and alleged. “It’s ironic,” said Daly, “that there are $2 million in cuts in substance abuse proposed by Gavin Christopher Newsom. Where, I ask, does Gavin Christopher Newsom get his substance abuse recovery, and how much does it cost the City?” He then pointed out the $100,000 in cuts in harm reduction for cocaine use, despite allegations that the Mayor himself has a cocaine problem.

“When it comes to the basic necessities of life,” said Daly, “a little bit of dignity if you’re struggling with mental health. I call on my colleagues to oppose these cuts. They will do the right thing, even if it is hard, because it is the right thing to do. You demand it, and you deserve it.” Daly finished his speech with rousing applause, and said that he did not need to stay for the public comment – leaving his colleagues on the Board to listen to four hours of testimony.

The next four hours effectively confirmed what a charade the whole process was. James Illig of the Health Commission was the first to speak, and he said that the Commission had opposed the vast majority of these cuts. Then there were speakers from Walden House, the SRO Collaboratives, the Bayview Hunters-Point Foundation, the Redwood Center, Baker Place, the 13th Street Drop-In Center, the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic and other non-profits. Their message was simple – we’d rather not be here begging.

“Mayor Newsom claims he’s leading a City with universal health care,” said Tenderloin activist Otto Duffy, “and yet he wants to cut the Health Care budget. You can’t have it both ways. What we really need is a five percent increase in the Health budget. It is unacceptable to be gaming the budget this way.”

By the end, even Supervisors who usually side with the Mayor expressed concern. “We see these cuts over and over again,” said Michela Alioto-Pier, who once tried to censure Chris Daly for his conduct at a committee hearing. “It would be nice if the Budget Office would stop doing this.” Ed Jew added that he was “appalled” at what they had listened to, and that he had taken diligent notes.

Board President Aaron Peskin reminded the Supervisors that the City Charter makes them “co-equal” with the Mayor, meaning that they have the power to make the budget decisions to restore the cuts. “The Mayor proposes and the Board disposes,” said Peskin. It was a stark reminder that the Supervisors can and should challenge the Mayor when it comes to the City’s budget priorities, and a sobering reality-check of how Newsom has completely prevailed at this point in the process.

But the best line of the night goes to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who said, “if we have to endure this every year, I think the Mayor should join us.” At that point, Peskin reminded the few remaining audience members that under the Board’s own rules, Newsom was scheduled to attend last night’s meeting – as part of the voter-approved Question Time. But, of course, he still refuses to attend.

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