The issue of contracting out city services to private firms has long been the third-rail of San Francisco politics. Even though outsourcing would save taxpayers a lot of money, the city's supervisors almost never approve a department's request to outsource civil service jobs. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, a rare fiscal conservative on the board, says he can remember his colleagues voting to privatize only one job since 2001 (a position in the morgue).
The reason for this is simple: Most supervisors are terrified of crossing the public-employee unions that put them in office.
In some ways, this year seems no different. The progressive supervisors owe their majority on the board to labor. (The San Francisco Labor Council -- which includes the city's largest public-employee union, SEIU Local 1021 -- spent more than $420,000 in this year's supervisorial races to maintain a union-friendly board, campaign finance records show.) And other supervisors with ambitions for higher office don't want to make labor their enemy. It's a recipe for politics as usual when a board subcommittee considers proposals to contract out more than 500 city jobs today.
But, if there was ever a time to break from politics as usual in San Francisco, this is it. The country is suffering its worst recession in a generation and the city is facing a massive $438 million budget deficit. Considering that the controller estimates the city could save more than $31 million by contracting out, will this finally be the year the board of supes takes on the unions?
Nah. At least that seems to be the consensus among City Hall insiders.
Jim Ross, a former aide to Mayor Frank Jordan in the early '90s, says mayoral administrations in San Francisco have floated the notion of contracting out proposals for decades without success. He expects nothing different this year. "It's such a core issue for [the supervisors'] chief political backers, there's no way they can ever go south on this," says Ross, who is now a political consultant.
Elsbernd, meanwhile, makes a similar prediction. He also points out the likelihood that there will be a ballot measure in November to raise property and/or sales taxes: "We may be asking property owners to pay a parcel tax" or asking consumers to pay higher sales taxes "because we can't even consider these contracting out proposals."
The board's budget and finance committee will debate whether to outsource security guards, janitors, jail nurses and other union-represented positions at its 11 a.m. meeting today (see all the "Proposition J" agenda items).
One of those items, incidentally, is not "find $31 million under a rock." Maybe it should be.