City Hall's budget myopia

San Francisco has to find local money for pressing needs right now

EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom goes before the TV cameras and announces, grimly, that the city faces a massive budget deficit ($229 million) and all departments will have to tighten their belts. There's an immediate City Hall hiring freeze, and every agency has to prepare for budget reductions of as much as 13 percent. Things are bleak, the mayor insists, and everyone in the city should be prepared for service cuts.

If it feels like you've heard this song before, you have. It happens almost every year, and it's been that way since the 1980s. And it's not going to get any better until the city takes a hard look at how it brings in revenue and how that matches annual expenses. Before everyone starts lining up behind the mayor's budget cuts, that's what the supervisors need to do.

It's still early in the budget cycle, and the shortfall numbers are still tentative. So the deficit is really a moving target, and it's way too soon for anyone to start talking about specific numbers for specific cuts. It's also entirely possible that the doom-and-gloom budget talk is aimed in part at derailing efforts by Sup. Chris Daly to put a charter amendment on the June 2008 ballot that would set aside $30 million per year for affordable housing.

But we'll stipulate that the numbers aren't good and that once again the city will have an unpleasant budget season with worthy causes, organizations, and agencies fighting one another over small bits of available money.

It's also clear that Newsom's first response to the problem is entirely wrong. "Although he wants to trim the fat," Newsom's spokesperson, Nathan Ballard, told reporters, "the mayor made it abundantly clear he doesn't want to see a reduction in people sweeping streets or police officers walking beats."

In other words, it's fine if poor people can't get treated at San Francisco General Hospital or mental health and substance abuse services get eliminated or funds for homeless housing disappear — but the streets will still be squeaky-clean. And for the record, the mayor resisted all efforts to get cops to walk beats and was only forced into approving it after the supervisors overrode his veto.

The hiring freeze is a gimmick: you can't possibly run an operation the size and complexity of San Francisco city government with critical positions unfilled. What's actually happened is that Newsom told department heads they can't hire anyone without getting approval from his office first. So in effect, Newsom has given himself a direct veto over all personnel decisions at City Hall. He'll simply make sure that the jobs he wants filled and the agencies he wants to continue operating properly will be spared, and others will get squeezed.

It's a way to set policy without ever publicly discussing it, a way to shift money around without public hearings or input from the supervisors. It's not a way to solve budget problems.

In fact, balancing San Francisco's books — now and next year and the year after that and into the future — requires something that's in short supply at the Mayor's Office: direct and honest communication.

Here's the problem: San Francisco, because it's a city and a county, does a lot more than most other municipalities. And because it's a city with active groups pushing for humane policies, it's a city that tries to provide services that ought be paid for by the federal or state governments. In a rational system, San Francisco wouldn't have to come up with $30 million per year for affordable housing; billions of dollars would be coming out of Washington DC to address poverty, homelessness, and the housing crunch in American cities. San Francisco shouldn't be setting aside cash from the General Fund for the public schools; the state of California ought to be funding the schools at a level that would make local support unnecessary.