The mayor shouldn't be driving the fiscal agenda alone
EDITORIAL If Mayor Gavin Newsom moves forward aggressively with mid-year cuts to the city budget, a lame duck Board of Supervisors with four veterans including the board president and chair of the Budget Committee on their way out the door could be voting on harsh reductions in city spending on health care, parks, and other services. That's not the best way to make policy; we'd rather the cuts go to the new board, which will be dealing with next year's budget anyway. But if the mayor is pushing reductions now, the current board needs to act aggressively and quickly to be sure that the mayor's wrongheaded priorities don't carry the day.
We recognize that the city has money problems. Like every other taxpayer-financed entity in America, San Francisco is getting hit hard by the recession. When retail sales drop, so do local sales taxes. When real estate values plummet, so do property taxes receipts. And while some prominent economists are urging President-elect Barack Obama to pour federal money into cities this spring, nobody can count on that happening.
City Controller Ben Rosenfield is projecting that the city will be around $100 million short of cash by the end of the fiscal year. And since California cities (unlike the federal government) can't run a deficit, that money has to come from somewhere. (Fortunately, the red ink won't be as bad as it might have been with little help from the mayor, Sup. Aaron Peskin got two new revenue measures passed in November that will bring some $50 million more into city coffers).
Newsom's chief target at this point is the Department of Public Health, which is facing more than $256 million in cuts. That's on top of all the cuts the department has had to absorb over the past two years and it will cut deeply into the city's ability to maintain its landmark Healthy San Francisco program. The Recreation and Park Department, libraries, and Muni will face cutbacks too, and there's almost certainly a Muni fare hike (essentially a tax on the poor) on the horizon.
But there's no talk of reducing or eliminating any of the mayor's pet programs like the 311 call center, which is a fine service but perhaps not as important as medical staff at SF General or cutting significantly into his own office spending.
And, as always, the mayor has failed to look at any additional sources of revenue (with the possible exception of new parking meters in Golden Gate Park and at Marina Green). It's particularly frustrating that Newsom and his hired gun, Eric Jaye, pushed so hard to help Pacific Gas and Electric Co. defeat the Clean Energy Act when public power would be the source of hundreds of millions in annual revenue. (PG&E killed 10 other ballot measures that would have brought cheap Hetch Hetchy public power to San Francisco, the largest source of potential new revenue for the city, and the private monopoly yanks more than $650 million a year out of the city in high rates, according to a Guardian study.)
The supervisors don't have to wait for the mayor to propose cuts and then react. They can begin to move now. They can begin to identify their own set of cuts and revenue enhancements and can begin establishing an alternative set of priorities. Is it better to cut 311 and the mayor's special global warming deputy than to cut nurses at General? Is it better to close some redundant fire stations than cut hours at libraries? Should parking meters and garage fees go up downtown before city parks get meters? Back in 1973, in his first run for supervisor, Harvey Milk proposed eliminating the police vice squad (see "I remember Harvey"). That's an idea whose time may have come again.
The point is that the mayor, who is weak and more focused on running for governor than on running the city, shouldn't be driving the fiscal agenda alone. The supervisors need to either agree that they won't act on cuts until the new board takes office or offer some alternative plans today.