The truth about San Francisco's budget

Guess what? SF actually spends about what other big cities do

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"San Francisco," SF Weekly recently proclaimed, "is arguably the worst-run big city in America." That's a hell of a claim — the levels of corruption and mismanagement in urban America are legendary. But the Weekly's Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi set out to prove their case — with a series of mostly anecdotal points that looked at the usual targets: Nonprofits. Unions. And one senior Newsom administration staffer who pretty much everyone agrees was a horrible manager.

We were tempted to just let it go. Sure, there's plenty of incompetence and waste in the Newsom administration. There's a need for more accountability in some of the nonprofits that get city money. The police union got too big a raise in 2007.

That pattern also exists in a lot of other big cities. You wanna make a big headline by claiming SF is the very worst? Whatever.
But the heart of the Weekly's factual analysis was a chart that purports to show that San Francisco spends vastly more per capita than other "comparable" cities. That's a claim we hear all the time, one that the more conservative political forces constantly use to argue against higher taxes (and in favor of big spending cuts).

So it's worth exploring a little further. Because when you look at all the facts, the Weekly analysis is just wrong.

Comparing cities is a complex task — urban areas in America are governed in very different ways. You can't, for example, compare San Francisco to any other city in California because San Francisco is the only combined city and county. Get arrested in Berkeley, and the Alameda County sheriff locks you up, the Alameda County district attorney prosecutes you, the Alameda County public defender takes your case, and the Alameda County courts adjudicate it. And if you win, you ride home on AC Transit — a separate system that isn't in the budget of either the city or the county.

In San Francisco, all those things are in the same city budget.

But Wachs and Eskenazi decided to get beyond that. "Any time someone tries to point out that San Francisco has serious systemic problems, the response (from the Mayor's Office, from city bureaucrats, and sometimes even from city activists) is that 'San Francisco is both a city and a county,' as if that explained everything," Wachs told us in an e-mail. "So the comparison was already being made as part of the city's defense: San Francisco is a city-county, and what appear to be systemic problems are actually just features of being a city-county.

"We proved that isn't the case: San Francisco's per capita spending is significantly out of line even when compared to other large city-counties."
Actually, it's more than just the city-county distinction. The large cities-counties SF Weekly chose are so dramatically different in the services they do — and don't — provide that the comparison comes close to being meaningless. Ken Bruce, a partner in the Harvey Rose Accountancy Firm, which serves as San Francisco's budget analyst and does similar work in other cities, is no fan of wasteful spending. But he told us he wasn't impressed with the Weekly chart: "I have yet to see a rigorous analysis done comparing San Francisco to other cities," he said.

And the way the Weekly added up the numbers was, at best, misleading.

For starters, San Francisco runs (and includes in its city budget) an airport, port, public transit system, county hospital, and skilled nursing facility (Laguna Honda), for a total of more than $2 billion. None of the comparison cities do all those things. Or rather, some do those same things — but they aren't in the local budget.