This one's ugly

The worst budget season in years begins with more polarization than usual
Budget Committee Chair John Avalos

The most painful and divisive city budget season in many years was just getting under way as this issue went to press, with dueling City Hall rallies preceding the June 16 Board of Supervisors vote on an interim budget and the board's Budget and Finance Committee slated to finally delve into the 2009-10 general fund budgets on June 17.

Both sides have adopted the rhetoric of a life-or-death struggle, with firefighters warning at a rally and in an advertising campaign that any cuts to their budget is akin to playing Russian Roulette, while city service providers say the deep public health cuts proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom will also cost lives and carry dire long-term costs and consequences.

Despite Newsom's pledges in January and again on June 1 to work closely with the Board of Supervisors on budget issues, that hasn't happened. Instead, Newsom's proposed budget would decimate the social services supported by board progressives, who responded by proposing an interim budget that would share that pain with police, fire, and sheriff's budgets — which Newsom proposed to increase.

Rather than simply adopting the mayor's proposed budget as the interim spending plan for the month of July, as the board traditionally has done, progressive supporters proposed an interim budget that would make up to $82 million in cuts to the three public safety agencies and use that money to prevent the more draconian cuts to social services.

"It's the start of a discussion to figure out what that number should be. I don't know where we're going to end up," Sup. David Campos, who sits on the budget committee, told us.

Board President David Chiu said Newsom did finally meet with him and Budget Committee chair John Avalos on June 15 to try to resolve the impasse. But he said, "We didn't hear anything from the mayor that would change where we were last week." They planned to meet again on June 19.

"What we proposed represents the magnitude of the challenge we face this year," Chiu said of the interim budget proposal, seeming to indicate that supervisors are open to negotiation.

The real work begins the morning of June 17 when the Budget and Finance Committee dissects the budgets of 15 city departments, including the Mayor's Office, of which Avalos told us, "I don't think the mayor has made the same concessions as he's had other departments make."

The next day, another 13 city departments go under the committee's microscope, including the public safety departments that were spared the mayor's budget ax and even given small increases, and the budget of the Public Defenders Office, where Newsom proposes cutting 16 positions.

"This creates a severe imbalance in the criminal justice system," Public Defender Jeff Adachi told us. "Why is he cutting public defender services while fully funding police, fully funding the sheriff's department, and essentially creating a situation where poor people are going to get second-rate representation?"

That theme of rich vs. poor has pervaded the budget season debate, both overtly and in budget priorities that each side is supporting.



Hundreds of people whose lives would be affected by cuts marched on City Hall under the banner Budget Justice on June 10. Some of San Francisco's most vulnerable citizens, including homeless people, immigrants, seniors, and public housing residents, turned out for the march, chanting and waving signs asking the mayor to "invest in us."

Sups. John Avalos and Chris Daly delivered resounding speeches mirroring the anger in the crowd, and promised to fix the budget by reallocating money to protect the city's safety net. Daly charged that even as services to the city's vulnerable populations are being slashed, "the politically connected and the powerful get huge increases."

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