Round one - Page 2

Muni battle kicks off budget showdown season at City Hall

"The new MTA board composition will create greater checks and balances and also ensure that the MTA director is not solely accountable to one person, but to a board that is more representative of the city and county of San Francisco," Avalos said.

MTA now faces an additional $10 to $16 million deficit, thanks to union negotiations and fears that the state will raid city property tax and gas tax coffers. But as part of his budget deal with Chiu, Ford promised that the agency would study extending parking meter enforcement hours to close the gap.

Confirming that the agency dropped a $9 million a year proposal to extend meter hours citywide after receiving input from merchants, Ford said that "we'll clearly have to revisit parking. We'll be looking at how to administer extended meter hours, and how that impacts churches if we do it Sundays. But we are sitting here with a structural deficit that's been going on for decades. We need to figure out the revenue streams we need to enhance the system."

Campos thought that a progressive Board of Supervisors should have gotten a better MTA budget. "As Sup. John Avalos and I pointed out, there's almost nothing different between this budget and what was presented last week," Campos said. "I think it's an illustration of how it is not enough to have power. You have to be willing to use it."

But Chiu defended his deal as a necessary way out of the board conflict with Newsom's office. "Nat Ford has committed publicly and privately that he will propose meter hour change. And MTA Board President Tom Nolan has committed that he will ensure that car owners pick up more of the burden, and that if the budget gets worse, the additional problems won't be balanced on the backs of Muni riders, which was not something we heard last week," Chiu said.

Avalos was less sanguine: "It was a clear moment for the Board of Supervisors to support transit-first and the city's most vulnerable residents."

But he felt that concerns about the deal, and the realization that Newsom is an increasingly absent mayor, will help voters see the need for MTA reform.

"There wasn't a single MTA commissioner or director accessible or accountable to the greater part of San Francisco. But they were responsive to Room 200, the Mayor's Office," Avalos said. "Clearly, we need greater checks and balances."

Mirkarimi observed how, when faced with a crisis, people make practical decisions. "What gets lost when we are in crisis mode is our larger objective," he said. "We are a transit-first city that has strong climate change legislation, and Mayor Gavin Newsom is constantly campaigning on green issues. So it's counterintuitive for us to broker an MTA budget on the backs of Muni riders and not understand that this deal could diminish that ridership."

But MTA spokesperson Judson True believes that what got lost in the discussion is that, as a result of Proposition A, the agency adopted a two-year budget that slapped drivers with increased rates and fees in 2008 while Muni riders and services were mostly spared.

Things changed, True said, when the economy tanked in 2008 and the MTA was left facing an unprecedented deficit. "At that point we reopened the budget and put everything on the table," True said.

Either way, Chiu has been urging supervisors to move on and focus on the next big thing: the mayor's budget. "There's a half-billion dollar hole in this budget," Chiu said last week. "It'll make this debate look like child's play."

Steven T. Jones contributed to this report.