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Death, Taxes, and User Fees 

The rise of hidden taxes in the Jordan era

Wednesday, Aug 2 1995
During Mayor Frank Jordan's four-year reign, he and the Board of Supervisors have been content to leave the city's business and payroll taxes frozen where they were in 1980. But that doesn't mean San Franciscans aren't paying more for city services. Jordan and company have relied on a sort of fiscal sleight of hand to balance the city's budget by promulgating a slew of higher user fees, permit increases, and the like.

In Jordan's fourth budget, fees are up in numerous departments, making it more expensive to do everything from adopting a pet at the animal shelter to obtaining a permit for a pushcart. The city estimates that the increases will reap the city more than $13 million from the departments overseeing recreation and parks, health, parking, and public works alone. In contrast, an increase of 0.5 percent in the business and payroll tax would increase revenues $22.9 million.

The defining characteristic of the increased fees and charges is that they sock it to the little guy -- even the dead little guy -- while downtown's big businesses have largely escaped the city treasury's insatiable maw.

Parking and Traffic
Parking Tickets
Tickets from the vigilant San Francisco parking fuzz are the highest in the Bay Area. In 1995-96, an expired meter ticket will set you back $25 citywide because the department dissolved a zone distinction between $20 and $25 fines. But don't yell at the city when you land one of those hefty $275 tickets for parking in a handicap zone. Those fines are mandated by the state Legislature.

Police Department
Sightseeing Bus
It's tough to find someone who pays fees who approves of the increases. It's easier, though, if that someone is from the mayor's camp, like Robert Werbe, a commissioner for Public Utilities who also owns the Grey Line sightseeing buses. Even though Werbe's fee is up 179 percent, he thinks it's time the city started asking for more money. "[The fee increase] was a smart move by the city. We use the streets, and the city needs to make money wherever they can. I have no objection to users fees. It's a very fair process," says Werbe.

Recreation and Parks
Pine Lake Day Camp
When the Recreation and Parks Department jacked the admission rate for swimming pools from 50 cents to $1, attendance plummeted, says Elaine Molinari, director of Neighborhood Services with Recreation and Parks. The department quickly restored the four bits admission fee and now tries to shield children's services from fee increases. But after the department looked into the rates charged by similar day camps in Oakland and by other private day camps, it bumped the price for one-week use from $35 to $55. Molinari says her department has cut as much as it can and must use fees to raise revenue. "The city was flush for several years, and then there were the years we had been whittling down ... and doing the best we could. We're at a point where we can't do that anymore," she says.

Medical Examiner
Storage of Remains
"Nothing is as sure as death and taxes," goes the old adage. Add to that the San Francisco twist: the high cost of dying in style. The medical examiner, who once stored human remains for free, now charges $25 per day per stiff. And over at the Police Department, San Francisco's Finest now charge $170 for a funeral procession escort, up from $145.

Police Department
Massage Establishment
The city's sin trade and other allied businesses are vibrant sources of revenue for the city. Everyone from pawnbrokers to individual nude models will pay more for a permit in 1995-96. And while public bathhouses now pay $897, up from $630 just four years ago, the price of running a massage establishment has leapt from $985 to $1,323. "The police are trying to put more money into the city's coffers, and they go for the areas where they have less people rising up to yell at them," says Bill Dresbach, owner of Sunset Sauna. "Today, if I wanted to open a massage establishment like the Sunset Sauna, which I bought five years ago, I think I'd have a hard time. The costs have almost doubled."

Police Department
Discharge of Cannon
Police code requires that cannonmasters obtain a permit before their howitzer hurls, but Officer Barbara Campagnoli allows that in the 10 years that she's worked in permits, she's never received an application for such a permit. Nonetheless, the hike in fees was made to cover the cost of processing the application. "I doubt that someone will come in and apply, but there's always a time and a place for something," Campagnoli says.

Bus Fare
In 1991, a then-campaigning Frank Jordan said that raising Muni fares was an "unacceptable" way of solving the budget deficit. But in his first 1992-93 budget, he asked that Muni fares be raised from 85 cents to $1.25. The Board of Supervisors nixed that plan and held the increase to $1. According to Supervisor Terence Hallinan, these are the type of fees that "people who live on a tight budget feel. If you don't feel them one by one, you feel it at the end of the week when you look into your wallet.

About The Author

Jeff Stark


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