Back in the early 1990s, when the city was hurting for money even more than usual, Sue Hestor, the environmental lawyer who is always full of good ideas, called me up and suggested that the city start charging banks a fee for every storefront ATM. "They have turned the public sidewalks into their bank lobbies," she said. ATMs can lead to congestion and are magnets for crime; why shouldn't the banks (which made a lot of money replacing human tellers with machines and costly private space with public property) help pay for some of those impacts? After all, banks escaped most local business taxes.
I ran that one up the old flagpole, and got nowhere. Back then, the city attorney was Louise Renne, who wasn't known for aggressive approaches to revenue generation; she immediately told me it wasn't legal. Back then, at least nine of the 11 supervisors were guaranteed to vote against anything that would offend big business.
A few years later, Tom Ammiano, who had become the only supervisor serious about brining in new money for San Francisco, suggested that the city put a tiny tax on transactions at the Pacific Stock Exchange. A similar tax in New York City had brought in millions. The exchange quickly marched up to Sacramento and got the state to outlaw the idea.
Down in Los Angeles, they're trying to put a severance tax on oil production. Great idea. Too bad (not really) we have no oil wells here.
Lots of good ideas. It's time for some more.
Things in San Francisco are really, really dire, and the district-elected supervisors are far more open to progressive approaches to the budget crisis. And if you're willing to stipulate as I am that San Francisco has a revenue problem as much as a spending problem, and that the rich and big businesses are radically undertaxed, then its time for a comprehensive look at the ways this city might bring in some more money.
There are some nice concepts floating around. David Chiu, the Board of Supervisors president, is talking about reforming the city's business tax. Sup. John Avalos tried to put a nickel-a-drink impact fee on alcohol wholesalers. Sup. David Campos thinks downtown should help pay for Muni service. I still like the notion of a city income tax.
But what we need is a long list of options a complete guide to how a charter city and county in California in 2011 is legally allowed to raise money.
Dennis Herrera, the city attorney, is a smart guy; he's figured out all kinds of ways to use his office to go after polluters, scam artists, and crooks. I suspect that with a bit of a nudge, he could help develop a few dozen legally sound ways to tax the wealthy individuals and institutions. That ought to be priority one for the Budget Committee.
I'm not sure what would work best, and nobody else is either. But we ought to have all the options.