Sharing the pain

Newsom's budgetary olive branch does little to ease the impact or win over supervisors

When Mayor Gavin Newsom walked across City Hall to the Board of Supervisors Chambers last week to announce that the city is facing a $576 million budget deficit, it looked as if he was putting political differences aside and genuinely inviting the board to "share the challenge" of bridging the 2008-09 budget chasm.

For years, voters and supervisors have urged Newsom to appear before the board for monthly policy discussions. And for as many years, Newsom has refused, claiming such invites were "political theater." Now that he's finally made the trek, critics say the context makes the gesture more theatrical than substantive.

Within minutes of Newsom's unannounced Dec. 9 visit to the board, City Hall insiders began to fear that the Newsom was only pretending to walk the unity talk: details of his $118 million in proposed mid-year solutions were not made available before the appearance, giving the two sides little to discuss and raising questions of due process.

"If the mayor was interested in real collaboration with the board, he would introduce his mid-year proposal to the board for our deliberation, just like the annual budget," Sup. Chris Daly told the Guardian. "But after we asked in three different ways, we found that he will be making over $70 million in cuts unilaterally — without the board's approval. Now we have to figure out how to get the public a seat at the budget table."

Unlike during the normal budget process, the mayor has tremendous power to make cuts mid-year. But with details slow to emerge, the legislators weren't the only ones left in the dark about the proposal, which includes slashing the Department of Public Health's budget by 25 percent, cuts that DPH director Mitch Katz told the supervisors is going to require fundamentally changing how government runs.

Several City Hall workers told the Guardian how, in the days after Newsom made his budget deficit announcement, Controller Ben Rosenfield was seen running from department to department, trying to track down the program-level details.

Supervisor-elect John Avalos, who has a deep understanding of the budgetary process from his years as a legislative aide to former Budget Committee chair Daly, confirmed that the mayor's $118 Million proposal "doesn't tell you much."

"There is $47 million in increased revenue that has come in that offsets the shortfall, and there's a higher-than-expected census at San Francisco General Hospital that allows us to recoup some money. But although there are all kinds of service/non-service cuts in Newsom's proposal, we have no details to work with," Avalos told the Guardian.

Two days after his board appearance, Newsom penned an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle in which he again appeared to be holding out his hand to the board. But Avalos, a candidate for president of the board, observed that Newsom continues to protect his own pet projects, which include the 311 Call Center, the Community Justice Center, and the Small Business Assistance Center.

"The pain needs to be shared and minimized all round," Avalos warned. "The mayor needs to come forward and help us, not simply cut all the programs that the Republicans want to see cut. There is this huge backlash from folks saying, 'Why do we spend $1 billion on our public health system? Maybe we don't need public health.' But our services are there for a reason."

Avalos said he worries that if we cut all these programs now, it will be very hard to get them back down the line.