Lee said his budget strategy is to try to avert what Sup. David Chiu once characterized as "the typical Kabuki-style budget process" that has pitted progressives against the mayor in years past. That means sitting down with stakeholders early.
"I have opened the door of this office to a number of community groups that had expressed a lot of historical frustration in not being able to express to the mayor what they feel the priorities of their communities are," Lee said. "I've done that in conjunction with members of the Board of Supervisors, who also felt that they weren't involved from the beginning."
Affordable-housing advocate Calvin Welch said Lee's style is a dramatic change. "I think he's probably equaled the total number of people he's met in six weeks with the number that Newsom met in his seven years as mayor," Welch said.
Sup. Carmen Chu, recently installed as chair of the Budget & Finance Committee, predicted that the budget will still be hard to balance. "We are still grappling with a $380 million deficit," Chu told us, noting that there are some positive economic signs ahead, but no reason to expect a dramatic improvement. "We're been told that there is $14 million in better news. But we still have the state budget to contend with, and who knows what that will look like."
Sup. John Avalos, the former chair of the Board's powerful Budget Committee, said he thinks the rubber hasn't hit the road yet on painful budget decisions that seem inevitable this year — and the outcome, he said, could spell a crashing halt to Ed Lee's current honeymoon as mayor.
"We are facing incredible challenges," Avalos said, noting that he heard that labor does not intend to open up its contracts, which were approved in 2010 for a two-year period. And federal stimulus money has run out.
DID SOMEONE SAY "CONDO CONVERSIONS"?
Asked whether he supported new revenue measures as a way to fill the budget gap, Lee initially gave an answer that seemed to echo Newsom's inflexible no-new-taxes stance. "I'm not ready to look at taxes yet," he said.
He also invoked an idea that Newsom proposed during the last budget cycle, which progressives bitterly opposed. In a conversation with community-based organizations about "unpopular revenue-generating ideas," Lee cautioned attendees that "within the category of unpopular revenue-generating ideas are also some that would be very unpopular to you as well."
Asked to explain, Lee answered: "Could be condo conversion. Could be taxes. I'm not isolating any one of them, but they are in the category of very unpopular revenue-generating ideas, and they have to be carefully thought out before we determine that they would be that seriously weighed."
Ted Gullicksen, who runs the San Francisco Tenants Union, said tenant advocates have scheduled a meeting with Lee to talk about condo conversions. Thanks to Prop. 26's passage in November 2010, he said, any such proposal would have to be approved by two-thirds of the board or the voters. "It's pretty clear that any such measure would not move forward without support from all sides," Gullicksen said. "If anyone opposes it, it's going to go nowhere."
Gullicksen said he'd heard that Lee is willing to look at the possibility of significant concessions to renter groups in an effort to broker a condo conversion deal, such as a moratorium on future condo conversions. "If, for example, 1,000 TICs [tenants-in-common] became condos under the proposal, then we'd need a moratorium for five years to minimize and mitigate the damages," Gullicksen explained.
More important, some structural reform of TIC conversions may be on the table, Gullicksen said. "And that would be more important than keeping existing TICs from becoming condos."
Gullicksen acknowledged that Lee has the decency to talk to all the stakeholders. "Newsom never attempted to talk to tenants advocates," he said.