Where to Start Cutting in the Mayor’s Budget

by Paul Hogarth on June 8, 2009

Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget has cuts and layoffs in Public Health, Building Inspection, and Human Services – along with dire warnings that the state budget could make it worse. Newsom eliminates the only programs that help organize SRO tenants, and that provide legal defense for tenants facing Ellis Act evictions. On the other hand, the budget maintains Redevelopment Agency staffing (at $17 million), despite sharply reduced programs. The 311 Center – a pet project for the Mayor’s gubernatorial ambitions – costs the City a staggering $11 million, even though the Department of Technology and the Office of Neighborhood Services are providing similar services at a fraction of the cost. Newsom’s Communities of Opportunity is still a priority (despite its well-documented problems), and the Mayor still has “greening” positions in his Office – while the City has an $11 million Department of the Environment. Why should the City cut unique services – while allowing redundant agencies to exist?

Budgets are about funding priorities, and political fights in budget season center around which priorities are more important. Debates about whether it’s more essential to avoid cuts in Police & Fire (as opposed to health and human services) are ideological – with progressives fighting to protect the latter, and moderates the former. But there is nothing ideological about more efficiency, as the City has to make cuts somewhere to balance the budget. At this point, the first question should be – where does the City have duplicate or unnecessary services, and what programs provide something that would not exist if cut?

Unique Programs Being Cut

Newsom has made progress under Care Not Cash at housing homeless people into the City’s residential hotels (SRO’s), but the question has always been how to stabilize this population once they get housing. For $750,000, the City funds four SRO Collaboratives – Chinatown, Mission, Central City and SRO Families – that work with this population, provide tenant counseling, assist on habitability complaints and plug them into necessary services. While the City has other programs that serve the SRO population, only the four Collaboratives empower tenants to help themselves by building community in their hotels. Mid-year cuts downsized their staff; the new budget eliminates all that is left.

Ellis Act evictions are a nightmare for tenants facing real estate speculators who seek to do mass conversions, because state law provides few (if any) protections. Effective legal representation, however, is a strong deterrent to this practice. At the same time Newsom wants more condo conversions to raise revenue, his budget has proposed cutting $125,000 from the Tenderloin Housing Clinic – which pays three experienced attorneys to provide free Ellis Act representation for low-income tenants. Without this funding, tenants who get an Ellis and cannot afford a private attorney will simply have no place to go.

All these programs combined cost the City less than one million dollars – to provide a unique service that would not exist without it. Now let’s look at some items that the Mayor’s budget does include, which provide a duplicative service …

San Francisco Redevelopment Agency

Newsom’s proposal cuts the Redevelopment Agency budget by 29%, in part because it completed two project areas – Yerba Buena Center, and infrastructure improvements for Misison Bay North. In other words, the Agency now has fewer responsibilities – and so it is only appropriate to downsize. But why are the Redevelopment Agency’s personnel costs (i.e., staffing expenses) remaining at $17 million, and its administrative costs are actually going up from 3 to 4 million dollars? Why not a 29% cut in staff?

Other City agencies have to lay off their staff to balance the budget – while the need for its services remains high. DBI (Department of Building Inspection), for example, has to downsize 29% of its workforce – and three Housing Inspectors who serve the Tenderloin, Mission and Chinatown neighborhoods have already gotten pink slips. Redevelopment has long been accused of being a patronage army. Under the Mayor’s current proposal, administration and personnel will grow by 50% of its share of the agency’s total budget.

The 311 Call Center Boondoggle

Randy Shaw has argued that the 311 Call Center makes the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (MONS) obsolete and it should be abolished, because 311 effectively provides the same service. I would argue that, in this very tough budget year, the City should do the opposite. MONS only costs $750,000, while 311 is over $11 million. The idea behind 311 is a central phone number for residents to get basic information about any City department. How is that different from calling the agency directly, or having someone at MONS assist you? 311 is available 24 hours a day, but is that really worth paying more than $11 million?

Did you know that the City also has a Department of Technology, with an annual budget of $90 million? The Department does a lot more than what 311 provides, such as running the City government’s website, e-mail server and cable access channel (SFGTV) – along with IT support for all of the City’s departments. But it also has a “customer service” component, which the Mayor’s budget proposal describes as “a single point of contact to ensure high-quality, efficient and effective communications and services to clients.” If 311 is essential, why not merge it with the Technology Department’s customer service?

Of course, 311 is a “pet project” of Mayor Newsom – to push his campaign for Governor. He even raided Muni funds to help pay for it – charging the MTA $1.96 for every Muni-related phone call. But if Newsom thinks the 311 Center will be an original way to show the people of California that he’s “forward-looking,” he may get a rude awakening. Many cities have 311, and San Francisco was far from the first to implement it. Los Angeles had it before Newsom became Mayor.

Excess Fat in the Mayor’s Office

When unveiling his budget proposal last week, Newsom claimed that he cut the Mayor’s Office by 28 percent. When called out because the budget numbers prove that’s not true, Newsom told the Bay Guardian that he meant over five years as Mayor. But watching the video, and listening to when he cited 28% in his speech (at the 46-minute mark), clearly disproves this. Newsom is only downsizing eight percent of his staff, and a lot of fat still remains.

One is Communities of Opportunity, the Mayor’s program that received a scathing evaluation in October by the Budget Analyst’s Office. “Without changes,” concluded the report, “[the program] will continue to lack sufficient direction and its achievements will be impossible to evaluate.” If there have been any changes made, Newsom’s proposal does not elaborate – simply saying Communities of Opportunity will “continue its leadership role in strategically aligning critical partnerships to better serve low-income residents in San Francisco.” The Supervisors must demand answers before approving any funding.

The 430-page summary of the budget proposal doesn’t go into enough detail to see if certain excessive positions that Randy Shaw had outlined are still funded, but most probably are. I’m pretty sure, for example, that the Mayor still has a Greening Director – as the proposal says the Mayor’s Office is “spearheading a broad range of environmental efforts within city government.” Again, why does the Mayor need a “Greening Director” if the City spends $11 million to have a Department of the Environment – along with its own Executive Director and Commissioners?

The Board of Supervisors should also cut parts of the Mayor’s budget that I outlined last week – programs that should be a lesser priority in tough fiscal times. But that is a political debate about the City’s competing priorities. Before even starting that discussion, we must eliminate programs that are clearly duplicative and unnecessary – while preserving ones that serve a unique function. It’s simply a question of efficiency – not ideology.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Beyond Chron is published by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which runs the Central City SRO Collaborative – and whose law office does Ellis Act eviction defense for low-income tenants. Both programs are proposed to be cut.

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