Ramp Skirmish a Prelude to Newsom-Supes Budget Battle

by Randy Shaw on March 24, 2008

The recent fight between Mayor Newsom and the Board of Supervisors over funding a $1 million ramp for Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier was less about the civil rights of disabled persons than about political warfare. Consider the timing: Board President Aaron Peskin has not used the inaccessible podium for three years, the city is so short of funds that the mayor is requiring city agencies to make mid-year cuts, and San Francisco has been unable to provide full funding for many critical disability programs like accessible pedestrian signals, which benefit thousands of disabled persons and many more who are not. The ramp fight was a proxy war between Newsom and the Board majority, a conflict that should really burst out in June when the Board considers the mayor’s 2008-09 budget. Unless Mayor-Board relations suddenly improve, expect the upcoming budget battle to be nasty.

After years of good times, San Francisco’s city budget is getting battered by federal and state economic problems beyond its control (according to a report issued last Friday, the city’s projected deficit has grown from $251million to $338 million in just the past few weeks). This would strain relations at City Hall even if the Mayor and Board of Supervisors majority had a close working relationship; but they have quite the opposite, so expect the worse.

Mayor Newsom pledged last week to work constructively with the Board over the budget, stating that he recognized that Supervisors may disagree with particular priorities but that they should be able to bridge their differences. But the Mayor made these comments only a week after attacking the Board over the ramp funding, and even calling upon private businesses to sue San Francisco for violating the rights of persons with disabilities.

Further, as Paul Hogarth wrote last Friday, the tiff between the Mayor and Board dominates the June ballot initiative arguments. So Board members may not quite believe that the Mayor wants to work constructively with them.

Under normal circumstances, the city’s deficit could potentially be quickly resolved by deferring the hiring of staff for vacant positions and/or eliminating such jobs from the budget. But given the controversy over Mayor Newsom’s “greening” staff, the Board may not accept cuts to any positions or programs until that issue is resolved.

Further complicating the budget process is the Mayor’s strong opposition to the November Charter Amendment that would create a $33 million affordable housing set-aside.

Newsom’s best chance to defeat the measure is for the upcoming budget to result in layoffs in key city departments, and cuts in vital city programs. This would send a powerful message that the city lacks the resources to redirect $33 million annually for housing.

In contrast, the majority of Supervisors backing the amendment recognize that the smoother the budget process, the more voters will feel comfortable supporting the set-aside. This means opposing layoffs at Park and Rec, the Health Department, or other politically popular city agencies.

Adding to this combustible mix is the fact that the state budget will almost certainly not be resolved prior to San Francisco’s budget. This means that local officials will have to project the impact of state cuts on San Francisco, giving rise to a dispute between the Mayor and Board over the amount of this projection.

It appears that many progressives do not believe San Francisco faces a real budget shortfall, and will aggressively oppose cuts to favored programs or to nonprofit groups with city contracts. Given the recent history of projected huge deficits that turn to surpluses, this skepticism is understandable.

In past years of fiscal problems, city workers have been asked to forego annual salary increases. But with rising gasoline prices, skyrocketing rents, and increased adjustable rate mortgage payments, city and nonprofit workers need a financial boost more than ever. And with the Mayor and Board majority each wanting labor’s support for their chosen supervisor candidates in November, working out a financial deal with city workers will not be easy.

No wonder so many San Franciscans prefer to focus on the Obama-Clinton race. Money for redirecting federal budget priorities is readily found in ending the Iraq War, cutting defense spending, and raising taxes on the wealthy; San Franciscans may have the opportunity to enact progressive revenue-raising measure in November, but no such solutions are available to get us through the next fiscal year.

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