Budget Battle bumps up against Gay Marriage

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Bridal Money bags are sexy, budget documents ain't.

As LGBT couples were praising Mayor Gavin Newsom for making legally wedded bliss a reality in their lifetimes, a parallel community inside City Hall was criticizing the Mayor for making potentially fatal cuts to public health programs, many of which have served San Francisco’s LGBT community for decades.

Unfortunately, between all the gay marriage hoopla going on in the marble corridors of City Hall, and the burn out that non-profits are already feeling having suffered crippling mid-year cuts, there was an unprecedented feeling of doom and gloom during this year’s Beilensen Hearing inside the Board of Supervisors’s chambers.

The Beilensen Hearings, which the state requires when cuts are proposed to public health programs and services, have become an annual dance, which goes like this: first the Mayor proposes massive cuts, then the Board tries to restore funds, next competing rallies are held, and finally most of the programs are restored,

Only this year, there is little to no money to be found.

During his June 2 budget annoucement, Mayor Gavin Newsom pointed out that while the City is facing a record $338 million deficit, it is also is seeing healthy increases in tax revenues.

So, why such a massive imbalance this year? Newsom claims we are spending more than we are taking in, but that answer sidesteps the political reality of just why that is happening on such a greater scale, this year.

The answer to that question lies in two directions: Newsom’s approval, and the Board’s largely unflinching support (Sup. Chris Daly was the lone dissenting voice) for union contracts last summer, when the Mayor was up for reelection; and Newsom and the Board’s failure to introduce legislation last year to create new revenue streams to make up for the increasing slice of funds that those same union contracts, predictably, are swallowing up.

To their credit, Board President Aaron Peskin (who celebrated his birthday June 17, just as gay marriage mania was hitting City Hall big time) and Sup. Jake McGoldrick, who chairs the Board’s powerful Budget and Finance Committee, have now bitten the bullet and introduced legislation that seeks to increase property transfer taxes and close the pay roll tax partnership loophole.

But even if these measures are approved, (and that's a big if, they won’t ease this year’s budget pains.

What could help, on a more immediate level, is the identification of significant savings within the Mayor’s proposed 2008-09 budget. And to that end Budget Committee chair McGoldrick has dug his claws deep into Newsom’s proposed budget document and drawn blood.

This blood letting began ast week, when McGoldrick led the charge against funding the Mayor’s proposed $3 million Community Justice Center. (The proposal got sent back to committee where it will likely fester, and the Mayor has responded by placing a measure on the November ballot that would allocate $1.8 Million in city funds and earmark an additional $984,000 in federal grant money to create the proposed center.)

And at yesterday’s Board meeting, McGoldrick told me that he has identified potential savings of $8-10 million from the San Francisco Police Department, including eliminating over staffing as well as defunding two out of the Mayor's three proposed police academies.

“Any claims that they are understaffed are not true,” said McGoldrick, who says he came to this conclusion by factoring in 129 civilianized positions into SFPD staffing totals.

“And I’ve already told the Mayor and the Chief of Police that they are not going to get three police academies, and that the Mayor’s 311 Center is not getting 26 new positions,” McGoldrick continued. “We are going to have to figure out a more efficient way to run it. This is all about priorities. My priorities are the sick, the shut-ins, the elderly, children, the mentally ill and the victims of domestic violence.”

Meanwhile, Sup. Chris Daly extracted hollow laughs when he announced that he would not make the exact same speech as he did at last year’s Beilenson Hearing.

Daly was referring to his now infamous speech in which he referred to “allegations of cocaine use,”—allegations that were whispered around town, after it was revealed that Newsom had had an adulterous affair with the wife of his then campaign manager Alex Tourk, but that were never proven and thus would have been better left unmentioned in a public hearing that was seeking to illuminate Newsom’s wacky budget priorities..

But because Daly mentioned them, the media, which doesn’t like covering budget hearings, since there’s nothing sexy about covering hours of testimony in which people describe , over and over, the devastation that proposed cuts will have on their programs, happily refocused its lens on the alleged inappropriateness of Daly’s speech, thereby helping the Mayor get off the hook for proposing cuts to substance abuse treatment programs, in the same year he claimed to be undergoing alcohol abuse therapy.

Or maybe it was because that in this LGBT-friendly town, Newsom will always be remembered as the patron saint of gay marriage, and because of his sainthood voters will largely absolve him of all his other sins, including making decimating financial cuts to public health programs that have helped the LGBT community for decades.

Either way, this time around, Daly, (while complaining that the Beilenson hearing should happen in front of the Mayor), didn’t bother to imply that Newsom had somehow lost his moral compass.

Which was probably a wise l move, given that at that very moment the Mayor was being elevated to international renown for having pushed the gay rights envelope all the way to the wedding altar, at a time when the rest of the Democratic Party, fearing another four years of President Bush in 2004, was whimpering “too much, too soon, too fast.”

Instead, Daly commented that his district will likely look like “the Night of the Living Dead” once Newsom’s proposed budget cuts go into effect,

Daly also introduced the “Treatment on Demand Act,” which “requires that the City and County of San Francisco “maintain an adequate level of free and low cost medical substance abuse services and residential treatment slots commensurate with demand.”

Daly’s act measures demand, “by the total number of filled medical substance abuse slots plus the total number of individuals seeking such slots as well as the total number of filled residential treatment slots plus the number of individuals seeking such slots.”

But for now, it’s budget hearing season, and advocates like Bill Hirsch of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel are telling the Board how they believe the Mayor’s proposed cuts amount to “a dismantling of a system of care that has taken over 25 years to put together.”

“We’re terribly disappointed with the mayor’s Budget,” Hirsch said, against a soundtrack of whoops of joy as gay couples celebrated their weddings outside the Board’s chambers.
“Hopefully, the Board can help prevent the worst of this.”

Others, like Connie Ford of Office Employees Local 3, which represents 800 non-profit workers, called the 22 percent cuts that the Department of Public Health is facing, “the most chaotic, unstrategic and ill-advised cuts” she’d ever seen.
“We’ll hurt people and the cuts will actually cost us more money” Ford said. “There is no rhyme or reason to these cuts.”

FelicianHouston, program director of a Woman’s Place, said that the proposed cuts are a “reflection of the dismantling of the continuum of care.”
“Just don’t do it.” Houston said.

And the list of speakers went on and on, including representatives for suicide prevention, crystal meth intervention, and mobile assistance patrol programs.

“Studies show that for every one dollar spent on substance abuse treatment seven dollars are saved at the law enforcement level” said several speakers. It's a comment that brings us full circle to the insanity of proposing to start new programs, like the Community Justice Center, while proposing to slash the programs that would serve that center.

Stay tuned for move coverage of this and other budget insanities, between now and the end of July, when the annual budgetary approval cycle is scheduled to be resolved.