Supes Prove They Mean Business on Muni Budget

by Paul Hogarth on May 20, 2009

Special Meeting Called for May 27th; Maxwell Sticks With the Six

The Supervisors technically have until May 31st to reject the Muni budget, but yesterday was the last scheduled Board meeting of the month. Enough members, however, held their ground on wanting to reject an unfair budget, and for that reason Muni survives to fight another day. After grilling MTA chief Nat Ford, the Board voted 7-4 to hold a special meeting next week – rather than let a budget that makes bus riders suffer four times the pain as drivers sail through. Supervisor John Avalos has proposed $15 million in changes that would roll back fare hikes and raise parking revenue, and keeping the scepter of rejection alive for another week gives the Board leverage to make this happen. Avalos’ impromptu visit with transit activists to the MTA office on May 18th yielded nothing more than vague promises to keep the discussion going, so the special meeting next week proves that the Board is serious. And Sophie Maxwell’s vote with the six progressives means they may have the seven votes to follow through.

It wasn’t looking good yesterday – even though rejecting the Muni budget was once again on the Board meeting’s agenda. The Supervisors had voted 6-5 last week to table the rejection motion – after Board President David Chiu negotiated a deal (with Nat Ford, Newsom ally Carmen Chu and the Mayor’s Chief of Staff) which only slightly improved the MTA budget. That compromise was the product of three very bad factors: (a) Chiu being outgunned by the Mayor’s allies, (b) Newsom’s threat that rejection would burn a $30 million hole in the General Fund and (c) uncertain support from Sophie Maxwell, after she had initially co-sponsored the rejection motion.

After the deal, John Avalos proposed $14.8 million in changes to the budget – rolling back some of the fare hikes, lowering the Lifeline Pass to $20, and restoring service on bus lines that serve low-income people. To pay for it, parking would be upped. But while activists got behind his proposal, Avalos’ trip down to the MTA to meet with Executive Director Nat Ford yielded nothing but promises to keep discussions. It was obvious that, without the threat of seven Supervisors to reject the budget, the Board would not get more changes.

And when you look at the big picture, it’s clear that basic complaints about the Muni budget so far have not been taken seriously. On the infamous work orders, the MTA has promised to do an “audit” – which makes me wonder why they didn’t have one in the first place. On the fact that the Police charge Muni $19 million to (in part) “patrol the buses,” we were told last week that an M.O.U. would be drafted with the Police Department within 24 hours. That hasn’t happened yet, and now Channel 7 has a new report that the cops are blatantly ignoring it. And we’ve been told a “study” would be done to explore the expansion of parking meter hours – even though one would imagine that isn’t necessary, given that the MTA staff had initially recommended going forward with it.

Nat Ford came to address yesterday’s Board meeting, and reported that the MTA’s deficit is $13 million more than it was last week. This is due to: (a) $3 million from the SEIU agreement falling through, (c) another $3 million from other union contracts, and (c) $7 million from state cuts – due to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s May Revise. But Ford failed to mention that the last $7 million is only speculative for now. The Governor wants to borrow money from local governments in order to balance the state budget, but he needs two-thirds of the state legislature for that to happen. California’s finances are certainly dire, but I have a hard time believing the legislature would support ripping off cash-strapped counties.

But it became clear that without the pressure of rejecting the budget, Ford had no reason to listen to the Supervisors. He said he “appreciated” John Avalos’ input, but the Board was more interested in results than appreciation. When David Campos asked if too much influence on the MTA was coming from the Mayor – rather than transit professionals – Ford’s response was unconvincing. “It would be inappropriate to offer my opinion of this as Executive Director,” he said. “Influence comes from all corners of City Hall, and it was a very open process.” Of course, the Muni budget compromise last week had been behind closed doors – with most Supervisors left out in the cold, and unaware of any details.

Sophie Maxwell, who could be a seventh vote to reject the budget, then added her voice to the debate – and suggested a change of where she was last week. “We’re putting the burden on working people,” she said. “I still think there is room here for negotiation, but my concern is – without pressure – the discussion won’t happen.” On the question of raising revenue from parking, Maxwell said she had “come to a different feeling about it. I am reconsidering it … I feel it should really be put on the table.” With Maxwell, it now became clear that Avalos would have negotiating leverage in the next week to have the MTA agree to some changes – which could forestall some fare hikes and service cuts.

Ross Mirkarimi then suggested that the item be continued, and a special Board meeting be scheduled the following week. The Supervisors only have until May 31st when their power to reject the Muni budget expires – and scheduling a “special meeting” would be a good-faith gesture to allow for another week of negotiations. By a vote of 7-4, the Board then agreed to meet Wednesday May 27th at 12:00 p.m., to hopefully resolve the matter. Avalos and transit justice advocates now have a week to organize, and get the MTA to agree to more concessions in the final budget.

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