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Monday, June 23, 2008

SF Government InAction - the magic of Budget Season fills the city with mean spiritedness while we spend like a Midwestern lawn care enthusiast with a credit card

Posted By on Mon, Jun 23, 2008 at 10:28 AM


By Benjamin Wachs

Budget Season in San Francisco is like Christmas for Progressives. Everyone writes a wish list, we find out who’s been naughty and nice, and we learn how much money the white-guy-with-the-forced-laugh-who-nobody-really-believes-in is willing to give out. Yes, Virginia, there is a Gavin Newsom: he’s the one cutting your daddy’s job.

Just like Christmas, Budget Season brings out the worst in people who are supposed to be thankful. And just like Christmas, Budget Season brings out a lot of buyer’s remorse. And just like Christmas, Budget Season is actually the worst possible thing we could do to our budget.

Exhibit A: in a year of massive budget deficits we’re engaging in one-shot revenue fixes and increasing the total amount we spend. We’re just like the Midwestern family with massive credit card debt that we all mock for their relentless consumerism.

But perhaps most importantly, just like Christmas, it’s easy to miss the true meaning of Budget Season. It should be a time for quiet reflection, a time when we – especially as a city that wants to save the world – ask ourselves: what are our priorities really?

Last week’s SF Government InAction got me into an argument with Gavin Newsom (through proxies – his people no longer return my calls) about whether San Francisco’s budget is completely out of whack for a city its size. I kicked his ass, of course. But now, taking a moment to pause with my candles and incense and gazing deeply into the refractions off my crystal, I’d like to reflect on the true meaning of Budget Season and restate the fundamental issue in terms that even the mayor’s hair can understand.

The issue isn’t the size of San Francisco’s budget – which stands at a whopping $6.5 billion for a little over 750,000 people. The issue is what we get for that money. And that’s a huge problem when you think about it because: what exactly are we getting for that money?

Are our streets getting safer? Are our poor being lifted out of poverty? Are our homeless any more home-full? Are our kids better educated? Have we in fact eliminated racial tensions? (HINT: we have the highest hate crime rate of any city in the U.S.). Have we freed Tibet? Saved the environment? Have we at least cleaned up our own appalling poor air? Are we happy with the public transit we have? Has housing gotten any more affordable?

If the answers to all, or most, or even some, of those questions was yes, the size of the budget would be justified because we’d be seeing results. But it’s not, and we’re not. And in that context the fact that other municipalities … in fact, every other municipality … can do just as badly as we do for a lot less money is a significant point.

Because if our fiscal house were in order then we’d have a lot more freedom to be progressive and to try new things. If we stopped paying for the programs that don’t work we’d have a lot more money with which to support programs that do. If government were less cluttered it would trip over itself less often. And yes … if government cost less it would be easier for a lot of citizens to live here.

Efficiency is good. If our city’s going to be a disaster we should at least pay the going rate for it. If we’re going to try and do better than we need every penny accounted for.

This is not an attack on Mayor Newsom – some of whose programs are disasters and some of whose programs (like Care Not Cash) may very well be having a substantial positive impact. But it’s the reason why these comparisons matter – why the $6.5 billion figure should give us pause …

… and it’s something to think about in the true spirit of Budget Season, when the city tries to give us what we ask for – good and hard.

If you wonder why I’m going on at length about this it’s because I always get weepy at holidays. Happy budget season!

Monday, June 23,

11 a.m. – Budget and Finance Committee

Does it strike anyone else as being kind of odd that the Budget and Finance Committee heard “public comment” on the budget not at the beginning of the process, or at the end, but in the middle? I don’t know, it just seems strange to me.

Anyway, they’ll be doing the exact same budget stuff – trying to decide which city departments and assorted hangers on get the gold mine and which just get the shaft – that they did last week (when they held public comment) and the week before that, and that. Salaries will be debated, perks will be set, and only the strong will survive.

Intriguingly, there is also a hearing on “Transfers of function” in the executive branch of government. The Mayor, for reasons not entirely clear, wants to move the following responsibilities around among the departments that answer to him:

• The Office of Public Finance will move from the City Administrator’s office to the Controller’s Office. “We believe,” Gavin noted, “this move will help the Office of Public Finance better coordinate debt policy and practices as well as facilitate the City’s long term financial planning process.” Well okay then. But it better be home by 9!

• The Department of Technology (once known as the “Department of Telecommunications and Information Services” in a clear demonstration that shorter is better) will break up its “applications development” teams and have them work for the departments they were creating applications for instead: 10 positions in Applications Development will go to the Treasurer-Tax collector; eight to the Controller, six to the Retirement department, one to the Human Services Agency and one to Recreation and Parks. Hmmmmm … I wonder which is the coolest city department to develop applications for? I’m guessing “Asthma Task Force,” but that’s just a guess.

• Effective Jan. 1, birth and death records will be transferred from the Department of Health Vital Records to the County Clerk’s office. – although the Department of Public Health will continue to register the actual births and deaths. Nobody will ever say: “I think he’s dead! Call the clerk!”

• The Police Department’s Equal Opportunity program will be moved to Human Resources in order to fully centralize Equal Opportunity programs across the city; and

• The positions assigned to the Employee Assistance Program in the Department of Human Resources will move to the Health Services System – again to centralize the program.

Is it cynical of me to wonder how many of these positions will have been moved back in another 5 years? Yes. Yes it is.

Finally, the committee will consider a measure that would increase the rental fees for non-profits to rent city athletic fields, and another measure that would establish fees for the use of Recreation and Park facilities by athletic leagues. Okay – whatever. In a tight budget year I have no problem with athletic fees going up … it’ll still be cheaper than Giants tickets.

1 p.m. – Land Use and Economic Development Committee

This committee won’t actually be doing anything – rather it will be extending and studying things. Hey it beats real work.

First up is Michela Alioto-Pier’s proposal to extend by a year the deadline for deciding whether the Planning Commission should start leveling fees for “neighborhood impact.” More study is needed, you know. And while the deadline has already been extended twice, by an additional 90 days each time, we must be thorough. There’s always new information to consider, after all.

I should probably keep my mouth shut because I don’t know anything about this issue. Instead I’ll just point out that some Ph.D. theses are written in the time it’s taken to come to a decision on this.

Those must be some fees.

Next is Gerardo Sandoval’s motion to extend his moratorium on new Head Shops in the Excelsior: he’d already gotten one moratorium for 45 days, and during that time the city had concluded (surprise surprise) that head shops need to be more tightly regulated. I’d be hard pressed to think of anything non-sexual that this city doesn’t believe should be more tightly regulated. But apparently 45 days just isn’t enough time to slap some really good regulations together, so now Sandoval wants to extend the ban for six more months.

You can do a lot in six months – or nothing at all, which is more to the point.

Finally we have an old favorite back for another visit: Sophie Maxwell has called another in 14 months worth of hearings to update the status of the Eastern Neighborhood Plan.

This has gone on for so long, with so little result, that I have concluded that there isn’t really an Eastern Neighborhood Plan – the whole thing is Aaron Peskin’s idea of a joke and the popular Supes are just seeing how long they can keep this up.

I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you, Sophie. On the other hand, you must have a suspicion: that’s why you’ve been asking for status updates for 14 months.

The Eastern Neighborhoods are on their own.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this hearing will be different. Let’s hope so.

Tuesday, June 24:

10 a.m. – Rules Committee

This committee is meeting just to appoint someone to the Board of Appeals. Bite me.

2 p.m. – Full Board of Supervisors

Lots of budget stuff this week – of course – and lots of stuff we’ve seen before. Here are a few random thoughts:

* As far as I’m concerned, Aaron Peskin can have any regulations for off-street parking and loading he wants. That’s just the way I see it.

* We have a Graffiti Advisory Board?

* We have a Food Security Task Force? What does that even do?

* Giraffes have really long necks.

Wednesday, June 25, 11 a.m. – Budget and Finance committee

Fees are going up. That’s the message to take away from this week: your fees are going up. Stuff you didn’t even know you paid fees for will soon be more expensive. Panic.

Thursday, June 26, 11 a.m. – Budget and Finance Committee


Friday, June 27, 10 a.m. – Rules Committee

For the third week in a row the Rules Committee has a late breaking meeting scheduled for Friday, and no agenda for it published by Monday. This is legal, their clerk assures me, because Special Meetings don’t have the same reporting deadlines as regular meetings; I’m also sure it’s a direct result of the obscene number of charter amendments getting proposed at the last minute, all of which the Rules Committee has to deal with. There's likely nothing sinister here.

Still, enough is enough. Two weeks ago I had to give the Rules Committee a Sea Otter. I thought that would teach them a lesson. When they did it again I added a Marmoset, thinking it would help. But those bastards are on a rampage. So ...this week the rules committee gets:

A Sea Otter,


A Marmoset,


AND a giraffe!


And if this doesn’t work, then next week I’m takign puppets of all of these animals down to the Rules Committee meeting and insisting that they ALL get a chance to speak during public comment! I'll give the Marmoset a high squeaky voice and the Giraffe a Scottish accent! Don't think I'm bluffing, Rules Committee - look into that Sea Otter's eyes and see if you think I'm bluffing!

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Benjamin Wachs


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