Time for serious budget reform

It's time to quit with the patches, quit with the one-time solutions and fee hikes

EDITORIAL Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's chief of staff, likes to say that politicians should never let a crisis go to waste — but that's what happened in San Francisco last summer, when the mayor and the supervisors approved a budget deal that didn't involve any real structural reform, didn't solve any long-term problems, and didn't even last six months.

Now there's a new crisis, one that, if anything, is worse. Cutting almost a half-billion dollars from the city budget last year was absolutely brutal. But cutting another half-billion, which is what the controller is now talking about, seems almost inconceivable.

It's time to quit with the patches, quit with the one-time solutions and fee hikes. And with the mayor missing in action, the supervisors simply have to take the lead here and begin working on major systemic changes that shift the way the city is financed and the way money is spent.

The biggest problem with last summer's deal was the lack of any serious attempt at bringing in new revenue. Newsom and his advisors all said that tax hikes weren't looking good in the polls and probably wouldn't get voter approval, but election results around the Bay suggest otherwise: In city after city, voters approved new taxes to fund essential public services.

And Newsom never gave the revenue side of the equation a fighting chance. He never made any personal effort to lobby the three supervisors he had appointed to the board, who were all reluctant to put emergency tax measures on the ballot. He just let the idea die.

And now the city is paying the price. Everyone with any sense knew last summer that the recession wasn't going to magically end in time to make this budget work. It was clear that property tax and sales tax revenue would drop even further — and that the only way to avoid brutal midyear cuts was to look for new sources of money. Now the mayor and the board have to slice close to $50 million to keep the red ink at bay, and next year's deficit is pegged at 10 times that much.

The other glaring problem with the mayor's budget approach is that it sought to cut only from the front lines. But the highest-paid workers, the folks who make way more than $100,000 a year, the management ranks that have become very well staffed in recent years, were largely untouched. And frankly, there are a lot of people in that category who don't do much of anything that's essential to the functioning of the city.

During the dot-com boom, when Willie Brown was mayor and the city was awash in cash, the ranks of the politically appointed managers grew dramatically. Some of those folks are still around. Newsom has added his own. And the structure of management and organization in this city has never been a model of efficiency. So if the mayor wants another round of deep cuts — 20 percent from every department — he should start with a management audit of some of the biggest departments and take a hard look at exactly what all those senior employees do all day — and whether their work might be less important than, say, nurse aides who take care of the sick elderly.

As a simple show of good faith, Newsom shouldn't replace Nate Ballard, the press secretary, or Kevin Ryan, his criminal justice advisor. There are still four other people in the mayor's press office, more than any mayor in modern history has ever needed. And the city already has a police chief, police commission, district attorney, and sheriff. Why the mayor needs his own criminal justice office is a mystery to us.

There are other policy issues that need to be examined. The current budget shortfall memo from the city controller notes that some departments are already over budget — the Sheriff's Office, for example, needs an additional $2.7 million dollars. The public defender and the courts need and additional $4.9 million. Why?

Also from this author

  • Listen to the Guardian's endorsement interviews

  • SF's culture of corruption

    In many ways, San Francisco hasn't changed. It's still the old Barbary Coast, ruled by capitalist thugs and corrupt politicians, only with glossy modern spin

  • Jesus was a socialist