Bellicose rhetoric masks real differences over budget priorities
The dueling budget rallies that preceded the June 16 Board of Supervisors hearing on the city's spending priorities officially ended the conciliatory approach offered by Mayor Gavin Newsom a rhetorical political gambit that the Mayor's Office never really put into practice.
The emotionally charged police and fire workers' rally where Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes riled up the crowd by ridiculing supervisors as "idiots" and "carpetbaggers" featured Newsom as the guest of honor at an event overseen by Eric Jaye, the political consultant running both the firefighters' union budget offensive and Newsom's gubernatorial campaign.
On a stage lined with American flags and burly public safety workers, Newsom condemned the progressive supervisor's proposal to amend his budget over a blaring sound system. "They're asking us to retreat," Newsom said, in full battle cry mode, "and we're not going to do that."
Across the street, city employees from the Department of Public Health held a competing rally, flying a banner that read "No Cuts to Vital Services!" It was painfully obvious that in a squabble between city employees, the mayor was positioning himself on the side of well-paid, powerful union members who got raises instead of layoffs, rather than the public health workers and advocates for the poor whom Newsom's budget cut the deepest.
But before progressive supervisors challenged Newsom's proposed budget which ignored the supervisors' stated priorities, despite Newsom's December pledge to work closely with the board on it the rhetoric was quite different. "We work through our differences and ultimately try to look at the budget as apolitically as possible," Newsom said during a June 1 event unveiling his budget. "It'll only happen by working together."
Six months earlier, when the mayor made a rare appearance at a Board of Supervisors meeting to announce the unprecedented budget shortfall of more than $500 million, he adopted a similar tone. "We have the capacity, the ingenuity and the spirit to solve this," Newsom told the board in December. "It's going to take all of us working together. It's in that spirit that I am here."
The mayor's proposed budget has spurred outrage from poor people and progressive supervisors, who charge that his decision to cut critical services while simultaneously bolstering funding to the police and fire departments is morally repugnant.
Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, and David Chiu responded by passing an amendment in committee to slash $82 million from the public-safety budget in order to restore some of the cuts to public health and social services. After that move, the spirit of "working together" quickly eroded, and seemed to be replaced by the bare knuckles politics of fear and division.
After the rallies, which even spilled indoors and devolved into shouting matches between the two camps, supervisors finally got to work on the budget. And they didn't ask Newsom to retreat, they just asked him to listen and work with them.
The $82 million dent in the public-safety budget was described as a symbolic gesture to get the mayor to take progressive concerns seriously. "For many of us, it was the only way we felt we could have a seat at the table a seat that was real, where the discussion was going to be meaningful," Campos said.
"I do not think that this budget is bilateral. It is a unilateral budget," Chiu noted at a Budget and Finance Committee meeting.
This year's budget battle is especially intense because of the unprecedented size of the deficit, as well as the dire economic conditions facing many San Franciscans. California's unemployment rate climbed to 11.5 percent in May, and stood at an only slightly less miserable 9.1 percent in San Francisco, according to the state's Employment Development Department.
Meanwhile, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of San Franciscans in need of emergency food assistance, homeless services, and help with other basic necessities has spiked. Everyone seems to be feeling the pinch, but for the least fortunate, falling on hard times can mean relying on city-funded services for survival.
Against this dismal backdrop, big questions are emerging about the role of government. "The city's budget," City Attorney Dennis Herrera noted at a recent hearing, "is correctly called the city's most meaningful policy document. More than any other piece of legislation, it sets out the priorities that tangibly express the values of the City and County of San Francisco."
Sup. Ross Mirkarimi took this idea even farther at the budget hearing. "Aside from the politicking and any of the hyperbole, we [have to] do the best we possibly can for all the people of San Francisco," he said. "But in particular, the vulnerable classes, because what is also at stake is ... the key question: Who's this city for? And who gets to live here over the next 10 to 20 years, considering how cost-prohibitive it is to be in San Francisco?"
The budget battle is shaping up around some fundamental questions: is this budget going to protect the politically powerful while ignoring the thousands who are in danger of slipping through the cracks? Or will everyone be asked to make sacrifices to preserve the city's safety net? And as these difficult decisions are hashed out, is the mayor going to sit down with the board to seek common ground?
A board hearing on the cuts to health services which state law requires cities to hold when those cuts are deep illustrated the divide with hours of testimony from the city's most disadvantaged residents: those with mental health problems, seniors, SRO tenants, AIDS patients, and others.
"If we make the wrong decisions, it will mean that our homeless folks will be in ever-increasing numbers on the street. It means that folks with HIV will not receive the care they need. It will mean that kids will not have the after-school programs they need during their critical years. It will mean that our tenants will continue to live in substandard housing," Chiu summarized the testimony.
Avalos, the Budget Committee chair who has led the fight to alter Newsom's budget priorities, has said repeatedly that cutting critical services does not work in San Francisco. And even as he proposed the amendment, he expressed a desire to reach a solution that everyone, not just progressives, would find palatable.
"We want to talk directly to the mayor, to have him meet us half-way, about how we can share the pain in this budget to ensure that we have a balance in equity on how we run the city government," Avalos noted as his committee began its detailed, tedious work on the budget. "We can do that across the hall here at City Hall, and we can do it across every district in San Francisco."
The Board approved the interim budget that more evenly shared the budget pain on a 7-3 vote, with Sups. Bevan Dufty, Carmen Chu, and Michela Alioto-Pier dissenting (Sup. Sean Elsbernd was absent because his wife was giving birth to their first child, but was also likely to dissent).
If Newsom chooses to veto the interim budget or the permanent one next month which the board would need eight votes to override San Francisco could be in for a protracted budget standoff, the least "apolitical" of all options. But for now, the political theater is yielding to the detailed, difficult work of the Budget and Finance Committee.
Progressive members of the committee have already signaled their intention to scrutinize city jobs with salaries of $100,000 or positions in each department that deal with public relations.
Among those highlighted in a budget analysts' report is Newsom's public relations team, a fleet of five helmed by a Director of Communications Nate Ballard, who pulls down $141,700 a year. Yet when the Guardian and others seek information from the office for this story and many others we are often stonewalled, ignored, or insulted.
During the budget hearings, the disproportionately high number of positions with six-figure salaries in the city's police and fire departments also came under scrutiny. "What has worked in a lot of other agencies is you have employees who care deeply enough about the City and County of San Francisco that they are willing to give back in terms of salaries," Campos commented to Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White during a budget hearing, referring to firefighters' refusal to forgo raises.
Another looming question is whether new revenue measures will be included as part of the solution. While progressive supervisors continue to call for tax measures as a way to stave off the worst cuts to critical services, Newsom proudly proclaimed his budget's lack of new taxes.
A press release posted on Newsom's gubernatorial campaign Web site suggests that since raising revenues doesn't fit with his bid for governor, it's not likely to be entertained as a possibility. "Mayor Newsom crafted a balanced budget on time," a press release notes, "without any new general tax increases, without reducing public safety services."
It's a stand that's certain to yield more political clashes down the line.
"I don't see how we can get out of this budget without bringing additional revenue into the system," Campos noted at the committee hearing. "Once people learn about the situation we are facing, they will understand the need for the city and county as a whole to contribute."