San Francisco City Hall Budget Bloat Remains

by Randy Shaw on February 24, 2009

My piece on City Hall’s non-priority spending while employees face layoffs and vital programs are slashed evoked widespread praise—as well as much anger. It also brought forth other examples of bloat, particularly regarding the nine staff—with a Director and Deputy—of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (MNS). A look at MNS’s website shows no information added since 2007. Even the mayor’s calendar ends in 2007—he’s been reported to have been out of town a lot recently, but he didn’t miss an entire year! MNS was a vital resource prior to the Internet and the new 311 system, but is clearly outmoded and should either be eliminated or cut to a single receptionist, at a savings of nearly $1million.

It tells us all we need to know about the MNS’s lack of importance when, under our tech-happy mayor, its website is more than a year out of date. That’s embarrassing for a city that prides itself as being on the cutting edge of using the Internet for constituent service.

One would think that one of its nine staff could regularly update its site, but I guess they are busy doing…………..just what isn’t clear.

An Outdated Bureaucracy

Those who recall the importance of the MNS during Bevan Dufty’s tenure may not realize how many of its functions are now performed elsewhere. In fact, the mayor’s vaunted 311 program took over the “We’re here to help” function that MNS long provided.

MNS emerged decades prior to the Internet, and became the chief way for the public to find out what public services were available and how to access them. But city departments have their own websites and outreach programs, and those who do not use computers—a tiny population in SF—can get assistance on accessing these websites at local libraries.

In this difficult budget climate, San Francisco cannot afford to spend around $1 million annually so that the public can walk in or call with questions whose answers are available on city websites. In addition to the services noted above, district elections made supervisors particularly responsive, and those seeking services from MNS can just as easily contact their supervisor.

The Cost of “Sustainability”

In response to my prior article’s questioning of the School District’s $150,000 per year “Sustainability Coordinator,” we posted a letter from David Assmann, Acting Director
Department of the Environment, that said in pertinent part:

    “Sustainability efforts at the school district help the district financially. Increasing energy efficiency, reducing waste bills, etc. result in net savings to the School District. The funds used for the
    sustainability position cannot go to the School District directly, since they are tied to environmental projects. None of the funds for the sustainability position come from the City’s General Fund.”

I appreciate this response, because it highlights an important question: how do we evaluate the cost savings of various city jobs and programs?

Can Mr. Assman provide figures showing the actual savings the school district has realized from the efforts of its “sustainability coordinator?” – I mean numbers showing that before this position was created, the district was spending $XX on YY expense, but thanks to the efforts of the sustainability coordinator, who all by himself thought up some solution, the district spends less on the same expense?

I’m very serious here. Many programs on the budget chopping block claim demonstrable cost savings, particularly in the areas of health and tenant protection.

Shouldn’t City Hall have to provide dollars and cents proof that the school sustainability coordinator truly saves us money?

There have long been efforts in the SFUSD to reduce waste and increase energy efficiency; and the district was already doing recycling and composting before he arrived. Supervisors must demand to know what the sustainability coordinator has done which was different or better, and what exact dollar amount his hiring last fall—at a time when the budget crisis was clear— has saved for the district.

And, to reiterate, I’ve heard the sustainability coordinator is a great guy. But there are lots of great men and women facing layoffs in San Francisco, and the criteria must be performance and impact, not one’s personality or connections.

Playing by the Same Rules

I’m not alone in thinking City Hall should play by the same budget, performance and accountability rules that it imposes on city departments, agencies, and the nonprofit sector. By ending the double standard that has protected longtime politically safe agencies like the MNS, the Mayor and Board of Supervisors will help restore public faith in the budget process.

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