California's unemployment rate climbed to 11.5 percent in May, and stood at an only slightly less miserable 9.1 percent in San Francisco, according to the state's Employment Development Department.
Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of San Franciscans in need of emergency food assistance, homeless services, and help with other basic necessities has spiked. Everyone seems to be feeling the pinch, but for the least fortunate, falling on hard times can mean relying on city-funded services for survival.
Against this dismal backdrop, big questions are emerging about the role of government. "The city's budget," City Attorney Dennis Herrera noted at a recent hearing, "is correctly called the city's most meaningful policy document. More than any other piece of legislation, it sets out the priorities that tangibly express the values of the City and County of San Francisco."
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi took this idea even farther at the budget hearing. "Aside from the politicking and any of the hyperbole, we [have to] do the best we possibly can for all the people of San Francisco," he said. "But in particular, the vulnerable classes, because what is also at stake is ... the key question: Who's this city for? And who gets to live here over the next 10 to 20 years, considering how cost-prohibitive it is to be in San Francisco?"
The budget battle is shaping up around some fundamental questions: is this budget going to protect the politically powerful while ignoring the thousands who are in danger of slipping through the cracks? Or will everyone be asked to make sacrifices to preserve the city's safety net? And as these difficult decisions are hashed out, is the mayor going to sit down with the board to seek common ground?
A board hearing on the cuts to health services which state law requires cities to hold when those cuts are deep illustrated the divide with hours of testimony from the city's most disadvantaged residents: those with mental health problems, seniors, SRO tenants, AIDS patients, and others.
"If we make the wrong decisions, it will mean that our homeless folks will be in ever-increasing numbers on the street. It means that folks with HIV will not receive the care they need. It will mean that kids will not have the after-school programs they need during their critical years. It will mean that our tenants will continue to live in substandard housing," Chiu summarized the testimony.
Avalos, the Budget Committee chair who has led the fight to alter Newsom's budget priorities, has said repeatedly that cutting critical services does not work in San Francisco. And even as he proposed the amendment, he expressed a desire to reach a solution that everyone, not just progressives, would find palatable.
"We want to talk directly to the mayor, to have him meet us half-way, about how we can share the pain in this budget to ensure that we have a balance in equity on how we run the city government," Avalos noted as his committee began its detailed, tedious work on the budget. "We can do that across the hall here at City Hall, and we can do it across every district in San Francisco."
The Board approved the interim budget that more evenly shared the budget pain on a 7-3 vote, with Sups. Bevan Dufty, Carmen Chu, and Michela Alioto-Pier dissenting (Sup. Sean Elsbernd was absent because his wife was giving birth to their first child, but was also likely to dissent).
If Newsom chooses to veto the interim budget or the permanent one next month which the board would need eight votes to override San Francisco could be in for a protracted budget standoff, the least "apolitical" of all options.