A messy wrap for city budget


By Rebecca Bowe

Emotions run high and things get messy when there’s so much less cash to go around. Just as San Francisco’s 2009-2010 fiscal year budget was finally approved at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, the news from Sacramento was that the long-awaited state budget deal bridges California’s gaping budget deficit in part by raiding local-government coffers.

San Francisco’s own hacked-up budget went through a round of last-minute changes at yesterday’s meeting before approval, marking last-ditch efforts by Sups. Chris Daly, Ross Mirkarimi and David Campos to try and preserve add-backs to critical services and safeguard against future cuts. By the time a roll call vote was held on the final budget package, the document had been tweaked enough by last-minute revisions that Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Carmen Chu voted against it. And while those last-minute efforts might preserve some critical services, there's no guarantee at this point that any new revenue measures will move forward to soften the blow of the cuts that were already made.

Mirkarimi made a motion to de-appropriate $900,000 from the trial courts, to restore $650,000 in cuts to the Public Defenders office and $250,000 in cuts to the District Attorney’s office. The motion passed after Public Defender Jeff Adachi -- backed by supporters who packed the Board Chambers wearing identical T-shirts -- delivered an impassioned speech, complete with a tearjerker of a story about a man who escaped a wrongful conviction thanks to the tireless efforts of a public-defense attorney.

Mirkarimi also teamed up with Daly to try and restore cuts to the public campaign finance fund, a pot of money that makes it possible for people who aren’t filthy rich to have a level playing field against other candidates in their bids for public office. The salaries of three high-level positions in the city’s Police Department, a dip into revenue from the city’s hotel tax, and monies from the city’s convention facilities were tapped to restore $1.5 million to the public campaign finance fund in a motion that passed on a 7 to 4 vote.

But Sup. Bevan Dufty, who voted against that idea, convinced Board members to reconsider the part about drawing from the convention facilities budget after he pointed out that it would cost union jobs and create “a ripple effect” by encouraging businesses to hold conventions elsewhere, thus putting a damper on one of the city’s economic drivers during a recession. As a compromise, the Board voted to place $800,000 in a reserve fund that could be used either for the convention facilities or the public campaign finance fund.

Then Sup. David Campos came out with a proposal to take $45 million from the city’s seven largest departments -- SFPD tops the list -- and place it on reserve as a way of creating leverage against the Mayor’s Office if it tries to de-appropriate funding to programs that the Board has said should be priorities or to make mid-year budget cuts without consulting the supervisors. “Those cuts only would happen if the mayor doesn’t keep his word,” Campos said.

Campos’ reserve motion passed, but Daly urged Campos to go even further by placing $300 million on reserve instead. Sup. Avalos, however, shot Daly’s suggestion down. “We are on the border of tearing apart a lot of good will,” cautioned Avalos, who worked with President David Chiu to strike a budget deal with the Mayor’s Office. “A $300 million reserve gets to toxic levels.” He stressed that Mayor Newsom had given his word on appropriating funding to restored services. But Daly cautioned that the Board could expect to see midyear cuts, and that only a large sum on reserve could really get the Mayor's attention.

Meanwhile, a bid to place a 3-year, 0.5 percent sales tax increase on the November ballot failed because it only received a 6 to 4 vote and needed 8 votes to pass (Sups. Dufty, Alioto-Pier, Elsbernd and Chu voted no, and Daly was absent during the vote). And it’s still too early to say whether a move to place a car tax on the ballot can move forward, because it’s contingent on a piece of state legislation.

Daly, meanwhile, tried in vain to close a loophole that allows the mayor to pull what he dubbed a “back-door veto,” where he can simply choose not to fund items that he initially cut but later agreed to restore. A report from the Budget Analyst from 2008-2009 revealed that regardless of what was agreed to on paper during last year’s budget, a significant percentage of programs that the Board restored were never actually funded. “The Board of Supervisors approved $37,534,393 in monies that were restored in the FY 2008-2009 budget, which include $30,657,078 in General Fund monies and $6,877,315 in non-General Fund monies. Yet $15,627,397 in restored monies were either cut to meet mid-year reductions or never expended,” the report notes.

To solve this problem, Daly proposed putting forth a city charter amendment that would allow the Board to require that money be appropriated for certain programs. “Without it, we only have blunt instruments at our disposal. A blunt instrument is to take a significant fund, put it on reserve and have a hostage to make sure the Administration doesn’t use this most significant loophole,” Daly explained. “This is crafted to allow a majority of the Board of Supervisors place a special marker on an appropriation that the Board feels strongly about.”

Things soured, however, after his idea went down on a 7 to 4 vote, with Chiu and Avalos voting against it along with Alioto-Pier, Elsbernd, Chu, Dufty, and Maxwell. Daly, wearing a sullen expression, left the Board Chambers after that vote went down. When he returned, he circulated a letter addressed to President Chiu. “I am no longer interested in serving as Chair of the Rules Committee or Vice Chair of the City Operations & Neighborhood Services Committee,” the letter read. “I feel that my efforts to serve the people of San Francisco and progressive politics are better suited in my other official capacities.”