What's Newsom got to offer?

The city's facing a deficit for fiscal 2009-10 of a staggering $438 million - and the mayor wants to keep his plans secret
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EDITORIAL The front-line city employees have stepped up to the plate. Members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the largest of the city-worker unions, are discussing concessions worth close to $40 million, the equivalent of the raises they were set to get in next year's budget. Other unions will likely follow suit, meaning that as much as 20 percent of the city's budget deficit could come directly out of the pockets of city workers.

That was probably inevitable, and Local 1021 members were willing to give up pay increases to avoid further layoffs. Nevertheless, it makes the point very clear: Labor was willing to come to the table and offer to do its share. Now Newsom needs to do the same thing.

In a press briefing March 31, the mayor gave only the tiniest hints of his budget plans. He said he's calling for 12.5 percent cuts in all departments, plus another 12.5 percent in contingency cuts. He told reporters that not all departments will face 25 percent cuts, although some probably will. Which programs are getting the deepest cuts? Newsom won't say. "You'll find out when you read my budget," which won't be released for another six weeks, he told the press.

So the city's facing a deficit for fiscal 2009-10 of a staggering $438 million — and the mayor wants to keep his plans secret. That's not just ridiculous and counterproductive, it's bad faith. The budget's going to be awful, and the only way to keep it from becoming a bloody train wreck is to start discussing all the options now, with all the stakeholders, in public.

The problem of course, is that closing a budget deficit requires two steps that Newsom is loathe to take. First he has to set priorities — to acknowledge that some programs are more important than others, and tell us where he draws those lines. Then he has to look for ways to raise new revenue, and that means hiking taxes — which won't help his campaign for governor.

By the time Newsom releases his budget, the supervisors and the activists will have only a month or so to hold hearings, examine the fine print, discuss priorities, and make changes. It's a notoriously inefficient way to run the city, and it leaves far too much of the budget power in the hands of the chief executive. The supervisors and the people whose lives will be affected by budget cuts need to be in the loop right now.

And Newsom needs to tell us what he's willing to accept as part of a budget deal, and what he's willing to give up. His office is full of highly paid staffers working on projects designed to help his political ambitions. Is that more important than public health and after-school recreation programs? What significant tax hikes will the mayor promise to support on the November ballot? Will big businesses, developers, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. be asked to take on some financial pain the way city workers have? Will Newsom raise money and shift some of his formidable campaign apparatus into saving San Francisco's public services this fall? Will he present a budget that assumes not just cuts but, say, $250 million in permanent revenue hikes?

Everyone in San Francisco is going to find something to hate about next year's budget. Every resident will have to pay more, whether in taxes or Muni fares or use fees, and get less. Most people can live with that — if the costs and cuts are fair, the pain is properly shared, and there's plenty of time to discuss it openly.

Time's running out here. Where's Newsom? *

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