Behind the all-smiles budget

Mayor Lee's budget stops the bleeding — but doesn't repair the damage

Mayor Ed Lee budget that was greeted warmly by everyone from Sup. David Campos to Board President David Chiu

When Mayor Ed Lee released his 2011-12 budget proposal June 1, all was sweetness and light at City Hall.

The mayor delivered the document in person, to the supervisors, in the board chambers. Sup. Carmen Chu, chair of the Budget Committee, was standing to the mayor's right. Board President David Chiu was to his left. There was none of the imperious attitude we'd come to expect in the Gavin Newsom era — and little of the typical hostility from the board.

As Sup. David Campos, who was elected in November 2008, remarked afterward: "It's the first time since I've been elected that the mayor has taken the time to come to chambers. It's reflective of how this has been a lot more of an inclusionary process."

Lee went even further. "This is a pretty happy time," he said. "There are no layoffs, and instead of closing libraries we'll be opening them." That earned him an ovation from assembled city leaders, including mayoral candidates City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting along with District Attorney George Gascón. "I think this budget represents a lot of hope."

It's true that this year's cuts won't be as bad as the cuts over the past five years. It's also true that the pain is spread a bit more — the police and fire departments, which Newsom, always the ambitious politician, wouldn't touch, are taking their share of cuts.

But before everybody stands up and holds hands and sings "Kumbaya," there's some important perspective that's missing here.

Over the past half-decade, San Francisco has cut roughly $1 billion out of General Fund spending. The Department of Public Health has eliminated three- quarters of the acute mental health beds. Six homeless resource centers have closed. The waiting list for a homeless family seeking shelter is between six and nine months. Muni service has been reduced and fares have been raised. Recreation centers have been closed. Library hours have been reduced.

In other words, services for the poor and middle class have been slashed below acceptable levels, year after year — and Mayor Lee's budget doesn't even begin to restore any of those cuts.

"We're not ready yet to restore old cuts," Lee told the Guardian in a June 2 interview. "It was enough for us to accomplish a pretty steady course and keep as much. Particularly with the critical nonprofits that provide services to seniors and youth and homeless shelters, we kept them as close as we could to what last year's funding was."

But the current level of funding is woefully inadequate. As Debbi Lerman, administrator of the Human Services Network, noted, the people who work in the nonprofits Lee was talking about haven't had a pay raise in four years — even though the cost of living continues to rise. "Our costs have gone up with cost of inflation," she noted.

She said the cuts over the past few years have deeply eroded services for children, homeless people, substance abuse programs, and others. "There have been significant cuts to every area of health and human services."

And in a city with 14 billionaires and thousands more very wealthy people, Lee's budget is distinctly lacking in significant new ways to find revenue.



Just about everyone agrees that the budget process this year has been far better than anything anyone experienced under Newsom. "He [Mayor Lee] listened to everybody," Lerman said. "That doesn't mean they fixed everything. Mayor Lee fixed as much as he could."

At his press conference announcing the release of the budget, Lee thanked Police Chief Greg Suhr for having already made significant cuts through management restructuring and for considering an additional proposed cut of $20 million.

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