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After nearly four hours of debate punctuated by boos and cheers from an impassioned audience, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' Budget and Finance Committee decided May 14 not to release $500,000 in reserve funds for Mayor Gavin Newsom's proposed Community Justice Center.
The project, modeled after courts in Manhattan and Brooklyn and touted by Newsom for years, would be a tribunal for bringing in quality-of-life crime violators usually the homeless or other street denizens immediately after they're cited and, in theory, getting them right into social services or community service work.
But the 3-2 committee vote against the project was based on this year's big budget shortfall, Newsom's opposition to other expenditures outside the normal budget process, lack of demonstrable savings or benefits from the program, and the fact that the social services it claims to offer are being cut.
"Let's be clear here. We're having this discussion while we're contemputf8g some of the most draconian service reductions, at least that I've seen here, in seven-and-a-half years," Sup. Chris Daly said at the hearing.
He cited $3.3 million in cuts to senior services, $17 million in cuts to the Department of Health, closure of the homeless service center Buster's Place, and a reduction in mental health services as examples.
In early May, Newsom vetoed an initiative sponsored by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi that would allocate $76,000 to record and post the proceedings of various municipal boards and commissions on the city's Web site. The board voted 8-3 to successfully override that veto on May 13.
At the CJC hearing, Daly read a letter from Newsom dated April 30 saying he wanted to hold out on new spending initiatives like the Mirkarimi measure until new programs could be considered in the larger context of the 2008-09 fiscal year budget deliberations that begin in June.
"This is his veto message based on the dire budget situation," Daly said. "These words are directly applicable to the item in front of us."
Sup. Bevan Dufty and other Newsom allies on the board are expected to try to overcome the committee votes by introducing the proposal to the full board. Dufty told us, "I recognize there are members of the committee who aren't comfortable with it, but I asked that the full board weigh in because I felt like everybody on the board ought to have a decision whether this moves forward or not."
Newsom Press Secretary Nathan Ballard blasted the committee vote, telling the Guardian, "It was cowardly for Chris Daly and his colleagues to vote against the Community Justice Center. They lack the courage to support this program that will help get low-level offenders back on the right track. Why? Their fear outweighs their capacity to care: they fear the idea of agreeing with Gavin Newsom more than they care about people in the Tenderloin who are suffering and need help. They ought to be ashamed of themselves."
But critics say the proposal is rife with problems. Peter Masiak, lead tenant organizer for the Central City SRO Collaborative, said the CJC plans did not call for enough staff members to handle all the cases on its own. The staff would therefore have to refer people to service providers like his group, whose budgets are on the chopping block.
"It does nothing if you're creating an expensive mechanism for referring people to services you're cutting," he said at the hearing. "I'm concerned I'm going to have to tell my clients the only way they can get services is to stand on the street and smoke crack."
Deborah Newman of the City Budget Analyst's Office said the CJC would cost approximately $2.9 million annually to operate. The $500,000 discussed May 14 originally was set aside for two holding cells one for men and one for women subleasing the court space, tenant improvements to the space, and social services.
Newman said that after tenant improvements, social services salaries, new cells, and subleases, new expenses would cost the city $2.4 million, even with a $1 million federal earmark supplied by Speaker Nancy Pelosi. CJC supporters said savings produced by the court would justify these costs.
San Francisco Superior Court Commissioner Ron Albers said San Francisco has used problem-solving and collaborative courts for more than a decade, citing the award-winning behavioral health court for mentally ill offenders as one example of how these courts can stop the courts' current revolving-door system.
"This is a difficult budget time, but we can target high-end users of expensive programs and save money," he said.
Albers added that under the current system, people charged with misdemeanors must wait two days for an arraignment, while those charged with felonies wait three days. At $152 per day per bed, taxpayers spend thousands of dollars a year on people whose charges are ultimately dropped.
A representative of the mayor's budget office told the hearing that the CJC could also save money by eliminating the need to build more jail pods, thus lowering the sheriff's budget. But Harvey Rose of the Budget Analysts' office said the CJC has failed to document any actual savings.
"Savings means that a budget is going to be cut, and we have seen no cuts in any budget," Rose said.
Some Tenderloin residents said that because crime is so rampant in their neighborhood, it would unacceptable for the city not to take action in some way, and they urged approval of the CJC. Yet others object to the double standard of creating what they dub the "poverty court." *