The SF Weekly still gets it wrong

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By Tim Redmond

I found it somewhat amusing that the SF Weekly’s writers, Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi, were really worried about whether we would be “professional” in responding to an inaccurate story about city finance:

We appreciate that the Guardian was kind enough to send us its letter prior to running its article, likely this week. Communications from the paper's reporter have been thoughtful and professional -- so we hold out hope that this may be an article that could do more than simply obscure San Francisco's gaping weaknesses with analytical smokescreens. On the other hand, it may yet be a hit piece written for the benefit of the city political bodies the Guardian openly aligns itself with and shills for -- and who are responsible for some of the misgovernment highlighted in our story

And then go on to respond to us with a piece that’s mostly snark – snark being the refuge of reporters who don’t really have facts to lean on.

I’m going on KQED’s Forum show Friday morning to debate the Weekly guys about this, which will be fun, but in the meantime I have to set something straight.

From the Weekly story:

The Guardian gets to break its own rules and compare San Francisco's budget to L.A.'s and Chicago's by "add[ing] to the L.A. and Chicago city budgets a percentage of the L.A. County and Cook County spending equal to each city's percentage of the county population."

This would make perfect sense -- if it didn't make no goddamn sense. You can't just determine overlapping city and county budgets via long division; cities are cities and counties are counties because they have differing, separate services. L.A. City and County each have their own Departments of Public Works, Building Inspection Departments, road crews, parks departments, you name it. Cities pay for their own services because they usually don't use the counties'. Simply adding a lump sum of county costs on to city costs makes about as much sense as multiplying the city numbers by Planck's Constant.

Whoa – Planck’s Constant. Dude – you musta gone to college or something.

The fact is that you not only CAN compare SF to Los Angeles and Chicago by accounting for both city and county spending – you HAVE TO.

A little lesson in public finance here, since that’s one college class the Weekly boys apparently slept through.

Most communities in the U.S. have four basic levels of government – federal, state, county, and city (or township, or town). Some have even more (village etc.) and some have fewer (Connecticut abolished county-level government many years ago). And there are special districts, like BART and AC Transit and school districts and mosquito abatement districts and lots more.

But for this particular argument, we’re looking at state, county and city government. That’s what you get in California.

The counties, as operating arms of the state, provide many, many services – expensive services – to people who live in cities. In Los Angeles, for example, there’s a city police department that handles law enforcement. But after someone’s arrested by the LAPD, the COUNTY district attorney, the COUNTY public defender, and the COUNTY courts system take over. And if the perp is guilty, the COUNTY sheriff takes custody (or else the state does).

Los Angeles COUNTY provides much of the welfare money for poor residents of Los Angeles CITY. Los Angeles COUNTY runs the system that counts the ballots for Los Angeles CITY elections.

You get the point.

So if you want to compare spending in the city of Los Angeles to spending in the CITY AND COUNTY of San Francisco, you have to either (a) eliminate all of the functions that count as county services in San Francisco or (b) much simpler, estimate what percentage of the L.A. county budget goes to services in L.A. city.

We took a rational approach – take the population of L.A. city and the population of L.A. County, and apportion to L.A. city a percentage of the county budget equivalent to the proportion of county residents who live in the city. That’s probably a low estimate of county spending in L.A. city, since more of the crime and welfare needs of the county are situated in that one city than in any other part of the vast county.

But whatever, we’ll take the lowball number.

Not magic, not physics, not chemistry, just basic common-sense and a basic understanding of how finance works in American cities.

Is this perfect? No. What you really need to do is analyze exactly how much government money – state, federal, city, county, special district etc. – is spent in every city you want to compare. That’s a bigger task than either the Weekly or the Guardian has taken on so far.

And I admit – we may be wrong by a few percent one way or the other. But we aren’t the ones trying to claim that the city spends vastly more money than anyone else who compares to us.

Oh, and as for this:

On the other hand, it may yet be a hit piece written for the benefit of the city political bodies the Guardian openly aligns itself with and shills for -- and who are responsible for some of the misgovernment highlighted in our story

Let me point out that most of the problems the Weekly points to are management issues that properly belong in the office of the Mayor of San Francisco.

And I don’t know in what possible universe – other than a Weekly hallucination – anyone could argue that Gavin Newsom is someone the Guardian is, or has ever been, aligned with.