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City and County Ballot Measures 

Wednesday, Oct 30 1996
Proposition A: Housing Bonds
Hey voter, can you spare a home? That's the appeal behind Prop. A, a bond measure funneling $85 million into community- and church-based nonprofit developers to build or refurbish 3,000 affordable housing units. The measure also sets aside $15 million for loans to some 1,000 first-time home buyers. Proponents say Prop. A will help relieve the city's housing crunch; the rental market's never been tighter, nor rents higher.

S.F. has earned a national reputation for creating affordable housing using the Prop. A scheme: Developers bid for city loans and grants, and agree to rent the units at below market prices. Unlike federal "housing projects," these units are typically attractive. Successful housing applicants are allowed to earn no more than $34,000 (for a family of four) and $21,000 (for a single person), so the new units won't assist the homeless as much as lower-middle-class renters who can afford up to, say, $600 a month.

This year, after some deal-making by Mayor Brown, the Chamber of Commerce and housing industry groups have joined the lefties. In exchange, Brown pledged to back an ordinance after the election to ease the way for landlords to pass on their property tax hike, which will pay for the bonds, in the form of rent increases. Proponents of Prop. A say landlords will be able to raise rents on average about 84 cents a month over five years.

Brown has also thrown a bone to tenants, of course. Although it's already illegal for landlords to evict tenants for the purpose of raising rents, some landlords end run this by moving into their own units temporarily, then moving out and jacking up the rent. Brown says he will push for a law to end that scam.

Proposition B: Museum Bonds
The city's art collection at the de Young would get new digs with the passage of Prop. B. The measure -- a darling of the political mainstream -- raises $73 million to replace the museum, a structure so shaky it could collapse in the next earthquake.

But neighborhood groups and some environmentalists fear a 370-car parking garage would likely be built under the new museum if the measure passes. They charge the garage would act like a magnet, further congesting the already crowded park. To blunt the attack, museum trustees (and Mayor Brown) are seeking a separate referendum on the garage for next year's ballot. And, in a deal to end the Sierra Club's opposition, Brown pledged to reduce park traffic by working to close roads and provide shuttle service.

Propositions C, D, E, F: Salaries and Benefits
Prop. C would raise the yearly increase of 2 percent for most city retirees to 3 percent using the retirement system's excess investment earnings. The average pension for the city's 12,500 retirees is about $1,200 a month, well below what prevails in other parts of California. Those retired longest receive the least; about 400 retirees collect $500 a month or less. Many are said to be living in poverty because the city didn't participate in the Social Security system when they were employed.

Since the retirement fund's investments have done so well over the years, dramatically lowering the General Fund contribution, retirees want a small part of those earnings. But a handful of fiscal conservatives who oppose the measure argue that all the fund's excess earnings should be pumped back into city services.

Prop. D would increase pensions for firefighters hired after 1976 to match the benefits given those hired before that date. Its cost is $3.5 million a year to the General Fund. While firefighters regularly ask taxpayers to pay fiscal homage to their courage, proponents argue Prop. D is simply about fairness.

A little history: In 1976 voters created a two-tier pension system for all city workers to reduce costs to taxpayers; hirees after that date would receive smaller pensions. In the Fire Department, which used to be an all-white-boys club, every woman and almost every minority firefighter is now on that second tier, which provides a pension of 70 percent of one's salary after 32 years of service. In addition, while the first tier is slightly above the prevailing statewide level, the second tier is well below it.

Prop. D also would increase some disability pensions to better reflect the injury. Proponents say that would remove an incentive for co-workers to cover for pensioners by keeping them on the payroll when they can't survive off the standard 50 percent pension.

Critics say the measure will push firefighters' pensions above what most private- and public-sector workers receive in San Francisco.

Theoretically, Prop. E would remove the need for voters to muck around in the kind of pension questions reflected above by putting responsibility back with the officials who were (arguably) elected to make such decisions.

Pushed heartily and hastily by Mayor Brown, the union-drafted measure restores bargaining between the city and its unions over retirement and health benefits, and gives the mayor greater authority in hiring and firing high-level city managers. Gone will be the locked-in labor agreements and civil service protection for lazy bureaucrats -- all in the name of creating a more cost-effective government.

But opponents -- including Supervisor Susan Leal and the business community -- charge Brown with empire-building. By pulling voters out of the equation, the mayor can use his new juice to feed the city unions, and employ the cronies, that have backed him ... at an estimated price tag of $50 million to $100 million annually.

Brown defenders respond that the pension system makes up only 1 percent of the city payroll. With most tax dollars going to salaries and benefits, which are negotiable, they say the mayor will be able to use the pension hike to negotiate lower salary hikes with newly pliant union members. The persuasiveness of this line depends on whether you think this is the Willie Brown who took gobs of tobacco money only to later pass some of the nation's toughest anti-smoking laws or whether you think this is the Willie Brown who took gobs of California Teachers Association money only to become that union's captive.

Perhaps tougher to sell than all of the above will be Prop. F, which would raise the supervisors' pay to $50,000, commensurate with other Bay Area counties. Supporters argue supervisors' current salary, $23,924, is low for officials who labor at least 40 hours a week responding to S.F.'s bizarre politics. They also say residents without a healthy second income are discouraged from running. But Independent state Sen. Quentin Kopp says their salaries, which were set in 1982, should only be adjusted for inflation: meaning $36,000. The senator, by the way, pulls down $75,600, with a $100-plus per diem.

Propositions G, H: Political Reform
The most sweeping local measures, these competing propositions seek to break the stranglehold that monied pols and pros have on the Board of Supervisors.

Prop. G would replace at-large voting by dividing the city into 11 districts, each electing one (resident) supervisor. The enormous expense of citywide campaigns currently shuts out many candidates. Under Prop. G, the reasoning goes, both Latinos in the Mission and conservatives in Lake Merced will have a better shot at electing one of their own.

Ironically, the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian & Gay Democratic Club is leading the small charge against Prop. G, arguing it undermines coalition-building across the city. The gay community, after all, is already enjoying newfound power to elect its own.

Prop. H backers say they want to go that idea one better, arguing that Prop. G wrongly assumes minorities live within neat district lines that would ensure victory. Under Prop. H, voters would be able to elect candidates in proportion to their voting power. Preference voting works by setting a victory threshold, roughly the total number of votes divided by the number of open seats plus one. This means fewer votes are needed to win, which is the key to electing minority interests.

Voters rank the candidates in order of preference. Everyone's first choice is counted, but once Candidate X crosses the threshold, the weight of that candidate's excess votes is passed down to all the second choices of X's supporters. Today in S.F., a candidate needs between 40 percent and 50 percent of the vote to win a seat. With preference voting, the threshold would be about 15 percent or 30,000 votes. So, if 60,000 Latinos or Republicans all pick the same first and second choices -- a big if -- they would win two seats.

Since the city already has a hard time handling big ballots, there is some concern that Prop. H, which will cost $100,000 for a one-time computer programming change, could create a mess the first time it's used on Election Night. The only notable opposition, however, comes from the Chamber of Commerce, which argues preference voting is too complicated and unpredictable.

Proposition I: Fire and Police Commissions
This measure gives the Fire and Police Commissions power over personnel matters, which currently rests with the Civil Service Commission. Other city commissions, such as the Health Commission, don't have this power, but the Police and Fire Commissions say they need it because of the unique problems in their departments.

Both departments are under federal court consent decrees, which set goals for integrating minorities and women into the departments. Once these goals are met, which is expected in a few years, the decrees will dissolve. While the Fire and Police Commissions say they are more knowledgeable about their departments' problems and better able to design hiring and promotion policies to ensure equal employment, opponents fear Prop. I will politicize these personnel matters. Opponents worry that the rigor with which commissioners pursue diversity will be dependent on the interests of the mayor who appoints them. But proponents point out that the Civil Service Commission is also appointed by the mayor.

Proposition J: Taxi Permits
In the long-running ballot war between cab companies and their drivers over putting more taxis on the street, Prop. J will be remembered as downright weird.

The measure would allow cabbies to sell government property -- their city-issued taxi permits -- to the highest bidder. Proponents call it a fair way to deal with the long list of would-be drivers. But critics charge the estimated selling price, between $100,000 and $200,000, would put permits out of the reach of most folks on the waiting list.

Prop. J, financed heavily by the taxi industry, also gives a limited number of new permits directly to cab companies, which breaks with the city's practice of issuing permits to drivers only. Opponents, including many taxi drivers, say the solution to the city's cab woes is simple: Issue more permits directly to drivers.

About The Author

Dirk Olin


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