Holiday blues

Newsom defies board's vote to restore public-health worker salaries

Ethea Farahkhan lost her city job Nov. 29, when a round of city layoffs impacting front-line workers took effect.
Farahkhan, a woman of color who was an administrative assistant at San Francisco's Department of Children, Youth and their Families, said she would have a job if it weren’t for Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision not to spend money approved by the Board of Supervisors to save people from job losses during the holiday season.

The layoffs rippled through city government as DPH employees with seniority exercised “bumping rights” to replace employees like Farahkhan, who was hired three years ago.

"No one's in a festive mood. We're concentrating on making mortgages and buying food to put on our table," Farahkhan told us when we caught up with her Thanksgiving eve. "I know San Francisco is not exempt from the economic crisis," she added, "but I feel like our mayor is out of touch. He's never been in this position."

If DPH layoff had been covered by existing funds and incoming grant money, as directed by a veto-proof, 8-3 vote of the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 24, she said, "I would definitely have a job to go to." Instead, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced after the board vote that he was refusing to spend the reallocated funding to halt the 478 DPH layoffs and reassignments.

Farahkhan's union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, spent months trying to save these jobs, finally winning over the final supervisor needed to overcome a veto, Sup. Sophie Maxwell, shortly before the vote. Then, for the second time in as many months, the head of the executive branch announced that he would simply ignore the legislative branch.

The impasse doesn't bode well for a city that's about to wrestle with a record midyear budget deficit again.
In October, Newsom declared that he would ignore the board's passage of legislation — by the same 8-3 vote that could override a mayoral veto — to prevent deportation of undocumented youth in custody until they are convicted. It was the first of two actions that seemed to answer the question of whether the mayor is willing to work with the supervisors on the toughest problems facing the city.

That was the question raised last summer when the board discussed a budget analyst's report that Newsom had either cut or refused to spend about $15.6 million of the $37.5 million that supervisors approved in budget add-backs for the 2008-09 fiscal year. With the mayor cutting 42 percent of program funding that the board fought to restore, trust was already eroding.

During budget deliberation, some progressive supervisors unsuccessfully tried to place hundreds of millions of dollars on reserve, which would give the board some leverage to force Newsom to honor his pledge to work with supervisors on midyear budget cuts, but the board ultimately decided not to do so.

The mayor's latest rejection came after a long, embittered battle with the union. SEIU members resorted to drastic measures — staging protests in traffic intersections, distributing flyers outside Newsom's PlumpJack restaurants, barging into his office unannounced singing civil-rights era ballads — to pressure the mayor. But neither those media stunts, nor compromise solutions developed by Sups. John Avalos, Bevan Dufty, and Board President David Chiu, could persuade Newsom to go along with revisiting the DPH cuts.

"Mayor Newsom cannot spend funds the city does not have," Newsom's press secretary, Joe Arellano, told the Guardian when asked for an explanation. "The board action didn't provide any new money — it takes dollars already being used to pay other employees' salaries."

The money allocated by the board was already destined for salaries and benefits of other DPH employees, but Sups. Avalos, Chris Daly, and Ross Mirkarimi argued that new federal dollars en route to the city via state and federal channels would bring the department budget back into balance.