The truth about San Francisco's budget - Page 2

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

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In Philadelphia, for example, the public transit system is a regional agency. Philly chips in $63 million from its general fund to help the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA). SF pays almost three times that much to run its own Muni, because the overhead costs are included in the local budget. Philly taxpayers spend much more than $63 million on SEPTA — it just comes out of a different budget and funding stream, so it isn't in the figures the Weekly used. Denver's transit system is regional too, and thus not in the city-county budget.

In Indianapolis, the city transit system, Indygo, is far less complicated than ours. Jenny Brown, a spokesperson for Indygo, told us she was amazed her city was being compared to San Francisco: "Our transit system is not in the same league as yours," she said.

Philadelphia also does not pay for a county hospital or include its port or airport in its budget. Neither does Denver.

There's also a difference in most municipalities between the general fund (locally allocated spending) and the total budget, which includes federal and state money, self-sustaining departments, etc. In Philadelphia that's a big distinction — more than $3 billion a year — but the Weekly compared Philly's general fund to SF's total budget (something Wachs admitted to us was his mistake).

So we took this a step further. First, in Chart A, we compare apples to apples — general funds to general funds. It turns out SF and Philly are relatively close in per capita spending. Then we adjusted the budgets to account for the fact that SF includes in its budget a lot of services other cities and counties budget somewhere else. That makes all the comparison cities a lot closer.

But can you really compare San Francisco — with its diverse and complex population and urban problems — to Indianapolis or Nashville? Even Denver? If even the folks in Indianapolis think that's kind of bogus, we figured we could do better. So we set out to find some cities that make a more fair comparison. We included Philadelphia, but added Los Angeles and Chicago (New York, by the way, is so big, so complex, and has so many counties, boroughs, and budget items, that it's not fair to compare that city to any other — even though is would help our case). To account for the city-county issue, we added to the L.A. and Chicago city budgets a percentage of the L.A. County and Cook County, Ill. spending equal to each city's percentage of the county population. (Not a perfect yardstick, but pretty close).

As Chart C shows, all four big cities are within about 30 percent of each other in terms of per capita spending.

But there's another big factor — cost of living. The vast majority of the budgets of these cities goes to employee pay and benefits — and it stands to reason that a city with a higher cost of living would have to pay its employees more. And San Francisco has by far the highest cost of living (according to the latest figures from the Council for Community and Economic Research's ACCRA Cost of Living Index) of all the cities in this chart.

So we adjusted per capita spending by the cost of living index (SF = 169, L.A. 145.4; Philadelphia, 124.1; and Chicago, 110.8) and discovered that in fact all four big cities spend roughly the same per capita — although San Francisco spends the least.

So is San Francisco a service-rich city (like L.A., Philadelphia, and Chicago)? Absolutely. Is SF's spending far out of whack with what other similar municipalities spend? No, not at all. All things considered, it's a little low.

PS: The Weekly spent much of its article attacking the lack of accountability in the city's $500 million' worth of nonprofit spending. That's a huge issue, but oddly, the Weekly didn't quote a single person who supports the system San Francisco uses to distribute services through nonprofits.