Story Updates

  • SF leaders float drink fee to help balance budget

     By Bethany Fleishman and Michael Pistorio

    The Public Press

    Part of the City Budget Watchdog project.

    San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos is crafting a proposal that would place a fee on alcohol sold in the city, potentially raising $25 to $35 million annually to help pay for alcohol-related public health and criminal justice costs.

    CafeVanCleef3 in San Francisco. Photo by Vivian Morales

    Avalos says the proposal, in its early stages and being reviewed by multiple city agencies, would provide another “source of revenue to help deal with the deficit and economic crisis.”

    The idea of taxing alcohol consumption is gaining momentum: Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Ventura and San Diego counties are considering similar measures. But there is stiff opposition from restaurant and alcohol industry groups, which argue that a fee will raise prices and slow sales.

    An alcohol fee would “add one more straw to the back of the industry,” said Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. “Restaurants would be forced to raise prices yet again for the newest government mandate. Obviously raising prices during a recession is a bad business practice.”

    Unlike a tax, which adds revenue to the general fund, a fee goes toward a specific area of the budget -- such as defraying the costs of alcohol use. Excessive alcohol consumption is the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

    According to the Marin Institute -- an alcohol industry watchdog group that first proposed the fee to Avalos -- in 2001, “the cost of alcohol abuse in California totaled $17.8 billion for health services, substance abuse treatment and prevention, lost productivity from premature deaths and justice system costs.”

    Avalos’ office has convened a team of city officials to determine whether the city can legally collect the fee and to measure the city’s public health and criminal justice costs related to alcohol sales. Avalos said he would consider legislation “that works with the budget deficit and is not cost-prohibitive for business."

    "Ideally I'd like it applied on the wholesale level,” said Avalos. He said he wants to avoid a burden on “mom and pop” businesses.

    Supervisor John Avalos

    Avalos said he couldn’t give an estimate of the fee amount until the study is completed, but a similar proposal on the state level calls for a 10-cent-per-drink fee. Avalos said he is pushing to complete the study by the end of the year, and hopes to "roll out legislation in January to March next year."

    The study team is made up of the city controller, the public health director, the police chief, the city attorney and representatives from the mayor's office. The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for a comment on the alcohol fee.

    Avalos said he wants the study to be conducted by an outside firm to ensure independence and withstand legal challenges from the alcohol industry.

    Weighing alcohol’s costs

    Several city departments handle the effects of alcohol-related incidents, but there is no clear accounting of how much time or money this costs.

    The Department of Public Health's drug and alcohol prevention and treatment section provides funding and services to city agencies that treat people with drug and alcohol problems. After reimbursement by insurance companies and programs like Medi-Cal, the department still spends $20.5 million a year on alcohol treatment. This money comes directly out of the city's general fund.

    San Francisco General Hospital in 2003 spent nearly $14.4 million on “treating alcohol symptoms.” After reimbursement by insurance companies and programs like Medi-Cal, there is still an unfunded cost of $8.8 million. 

    This number does not include costs to other health care facilities or providers of emergency services.

    The San Francisco Fire Department dispatches its emergency services unit to all 911 calls, including incidents connected to alcohol. Fire Department officials did not offer an opinion on the alcohol fee, but spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge said, “the fire department, on the medical end, responds to numerous alcohol related incidents per day, from people being passed out to alcohol-related injuries.”

    The fire department was not able to give an estimate of how many incidents per day are alcohol-related because dispatch records don’t necessarily state if alcohol was involved.

    The police department, which also deals with alcohol-related incidents, declined to make an official statement because the alcohol mitigation fee proposal is still in its infancy, said Sergeant Lyn Tomioka.

    Although the total local cost burden from alcohol-related incidents is unknown, city emergency, health and social service departments and agencies have been hit by budget cuts as the city faces a $438 million budget deficit.

    “Cities and counties are rightfully looking at how to replace funding streams,” said Michael Scippa, advocacy director at the Marin Institute. The organization, based in San Rafael, has worked on similar legislative proposals in other states, as well as on anti-alcohol media campaigns.


    Photo by Vivian Morales

    Alcohol is a big part of San Francisco’s lucrative wine-and-dine industry, and some are concerned that a fee will hinder sales. According to a 2005 study by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, 20 to 25 percent of revenue for the city’s sit-down restaurants comes from alcohol sales. Fifty-five percent of restaurants in the study had full liquor licenses while 33 percent sold beer and wine only.

    “A dime a drink would cost my business, one of the smallest breweries in the city, in the neighborhood of $20,000 a year,” said Dave McLean, brewmaster and owner of Magnolia Pub & Brewery on Haight Street. “In a business that has already been required to pay a variety of additional fees, taxes and other voter-mandated expenses in recent years, that amount would be impossible to absorb without passing the cost on to the consumer.”

    McLean added, “Millions of Americans and thousands of San Franciscans enjoy beer, wine, cocktails and distilled spirits daily to no ill effect and certainly no drain on civic resources.”

    The Marin Institute’s Scippa countered that, “alcohol producers are prospering and never hesitate to raise their own prices periodically to maximize their own profits.”

    “Economic research shows that if the industry pays the fee they pass on more than 100 percent of the increase to consumers,” Scippa added. “This additional rise in retail price more than compensates for lost revenue and enables industry to maintain pre-fee profit levels.”

    Scippa said that most of the alcohol industry’s revenue comes from price-insensitive heavy drinkers -- the top 20 percent of drinkers who consume 85 percent of all alcoholic beverages.

    “Therefore, the remaining 80 percent, moderate drinkers, consume relatively little alcohol and pay a negligible amount of alcohol taxes,” he said. “If the fee is assessed at the retail level, it will fall appropriately on heavy drinkers who will assume a greater share of the cost of problems caused by their drinking.”

    Jim Stillwell from the Department of Public Health's drug and alcohol section said he thinks an alcohol fee is a “great idea.’’ He said he believes the fee would cut down on underage drinking by making it cost prohibitive for young people

    “When we look at people who drink as adults to the point where they need professional intervention, the vast majority drank heavily as teenagers. Very few people who started drinking after age 21 become addicted,’’ he said.

    Calls for a state tax

    While a liquor fee can be imposed locally, in California, alcohol taxes are handled solely by the state. The last statewide increase in the alcohol excise tax was 1 cent in 1991. Any new tax requires a two-thirds majority vote by the legislature.

    An alcohol fee on the state level might be easier to pass than a tax, or so hope proponents of such a proposal in the state Assembly.

    Assembly Member Jim Beall, D-San Jose, introduced a bill in March calling for a 10-cent-per-drink fee on the wholesale level, potentially raising $1.4 billion annually.

    Beall’s measure creates a statewide alcohol fee program to fund five areas of alcohol harm: treatment and recovery; emergency and trauma; hospitalization and rehabilitation; criminal justice and enforcement; and prevention, education and research. The state Assembly is expected to vote on the bill in January.

    Reach the reporters at bfleishman[AT] and mpistorio[AT]

    Posted by Lila LaHood on 09/18/09
  • 9/18/09
  • San Francisco layoffs disproportionately hit women and minorities, workers assert

    By Kevin Stark
    The Public Press

    Part of the City Budget Watchdog project.

    As the city shrinks its payroll, sending layoff notices to certified nursing assistants and clerical staff, it is touching off accusations from organized labor that officials are discriminating against women and minority workers.

    The city has budgeted for laying off 340 employees and downgrading job classifications for another 290, as indicated last July in a memo from Controller Ben Rosenfield.

    But the pink slips are still being issued, so exact figures won’t be available until the end of the week. The actual number of layoffs could be less than has been budgeted, Supervisor John Avalos said.


    Video by Monica Jensen/The Public Press


    Union members and critics are decrying the cuts, saying they are a step back for gender equity because the cuts disproportionately affect women and minorities, who hold most of the positions. The layoff notices were issued beginning over the weekend.

    Mary Hao, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Resources, disputed the union’s claims. She said San Francisco leads the region in compensation for nursing assistants when compared with both private and public hospitals in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo, Sonoma and Santa Clara counties.

    Public nursing and clerical workers brought copies of their pink slips to a City Hall protest this week in which they claimed discriminatory firings and demotions. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    San Francisco contributes 36 percent more toward the retirement packages of its nursing assistants than the average hospital in the region, according to an August salary survey by the department.

    In response to the layoff notices, hundreds of clerks, certified nursing assistants and union members who are members of the labor union SEIU 1021 held a raucous rally at City Hall Tuesday. Singing “We shall overcome,” protesters pounded on the office door of Mayor Gavin Newsom, shouting “let us in!” The mayor had left City Hall through a side entrance an hour before the rally.

    After staging a brief sit-in, union members marched across the building and interrupted the Board of Supervisors first meeting after the summer break with shouting and songs.
    The union has known that the layoffs were a possibility since it reached an agreement over concessions with the mayor in May to help bridge San Francisco’s $438 million deficit.

    SEIU workers agreed not to receive pay for 10 federal holidays over an 18-month period, saving the city $16 million. As part of this concession, the city agreed not to lay off any union members until after Nov. 16. The city is required to give 60 days’ notice when laying off an employee, so the layoff notices were issued beginning over the weekend.
    Union organizers say Newsom promised, as part of the agreement, to find new revenue sources to prevent any further layoffs.

    “The mayor isn’t honoring the deal,” said Robert Haaland, a political coordinator for the union. Haaland added the union had hoped that the Board of Supervisors would be able to find new revenue streams, which it did not.

    Avalos has expressed his frustrations with the cuts, and he said his attempts to create new tax measures never had consensus on the board. Avalos said he would like to save the union’s jobs, but “the board doesn’t have the money before us.”

    According to a recent report by the Department on the Status of Women, clerical positions are held predominantly -- 65 percent -- by females. In San Francisco, health care support workers are 78 percent women, and health care practitioners are 65 percent women, the report found.

    Certified nursing assistants and clerical workers protested inside City Hall. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    Wage discrimination is still evident in San Francisco, particularly in women who make less money, the report concluded, which is fuel for critics who are angry that the layoffs are affecting mainly low-paying health care workers, who are predominantly women.

    Union members also are angry at the process by which the city is downgrading certain employees. All of the pink slips are the same, but some employees will be “de-skilled.” This means the city will lay the employees off and then re-hire them for less money while they perform essentially the same work.

    The “de-skilling” will result in a 20 percent pay reduction, according to Haaland. In mid-year cuts last year, 88 certified nursing assistants at San Francisco General Hospital were “de-skilled,” Haaland said.

    For now, workers who are receiving pink slips are being left in limbo. It is still unclear which workers are being downsized and which workers are being “de-skilled.”

    Carmen Rutherford, a certified nursing assistant at Laguna Honda Hospital for 13 years, received a pink slip Monday.

    Rutherford said she has no idea if she will be re-hired for less pay or if she will just lose her job. She said the hospital cannot run without its certified nursing assistants.

    “They are telling us what we do can be done for cheaper,” Rutherford said. “What we will be doing is the same job.”

    While Newsom’s staff did not answer requests for comment, they have told labor organizers that layoffs are necessary in a tight fiscal year, and that many of the clerical responsibilities can be performed by computers at cheaper cost to the city.

    Asked about that assertion, Rutherford, the nursing assistant said: “It is an insult.”
    Certified nursing assistants and clerical workers were a part of classifications identified in the 1986 “comparable worth” legislation, said to Maria Blanco, executive director of the Earl Warren Institute at University of California at Berkeley. The ballot measure, Proposition H, sought to ensure that city jobs held primarily by women provided equivalent pay to those jobs traditionally held by men with similar qualifications.

    “They are targeting those positions at the heart of the comparable worth debate. It is unraveling the legislation,” Blanco said. Nursing assistants and clericals received pay raises from 1987 to 1999 as a policy effort to end pay discrimination.

    Elizabeth Murase, executive director of the Department on the Status of Women, said it is too early to tell exactly how the cuts will impact women employees.

    “It’s difficult, because we don’t know who is going to leave the city,” Murase said. “We have our suspicions as to who is being laid off, but we won’t know for certain for a few couple of months.”

    Murase and Haaland have requested the Department of Human Resources analyze how the layoffs will affect women and minorities. The department is being “receptive,” but it will take months, Murase said.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 09/18/09
  • 9/17/09
  • State cuts set to slam San Francisco’s seniors, poor


    Photo by Andrew Turner

    Already reeling from a deep recession and massive cuts to staff and services in this year’s budget, San Francisco is being hammered by a new tidal wave of state cuts -- estimated at $26.5 million -- which could put low-income seniors and others on the brink of homelessness and hunger, many advocates say.

    In a report released Monday, City Controller Ben Rosenfield detailed a raft of reductions, chiefly to health and human services programs — including AIDS treatment, In-Home Support Services, senior services, Medi-Cal coverage, employment services, welfare-to-work programs and child-care funding — that will take a big bite out of programs aiding poor and low-income San Franciscans.

    The rollback in services, which may be offset in part by $18 million set aside by the city to ameliorate losses in state monies, includes:

    •    a loss of $4.2 million in state AIDS funding for HIV education and prevention, and health services;

    •    $2 million less in funding for substance abuse treatment and crime prevention programs, which are required under Prop. 36;

    •    nearly $1 million cut from immunization programs, maternal and child health and children’s dental disease prevention services;

    •    $2.9 million from welfare-to-work employment services and child-care supports;

    •    cuts to prenatal services and domestic violence shelters, potentially leading to local shelter closures; and

    •    reduced state supplements for Social Security recipients.

    San Francisco is being hit hard because it is a county, as well as a city. Similar reductions are hitting counties throughout the state because of the budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in July.  The losses add to the deep spending cuts enacted by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and city supervisors this summer to meet a $438 million deficit; Newsom now has 21 days (following the report) to decide whether and how to fill this new gap in state money, estimated at roughly $5 million after local set-asides and borrowing are used.

    Newsom's press office did not respond to several calls for comment.

    Though the cuts are lower than previously projected, “Nothing in the state budget is good news for us,” Rosenfield said. And there’s more fiscal trouble coming soon: along with the prospect of deeper mid-year cuts in the local budget, there could be more slashing of state monies soon. 
    "Everyone is nervous about the impacts of the state budget and the fact that the state is going to be out of balance again soon -- it's cause for alarm," Rosenfield said.

    Photos by Public Press staff

    Adding to the damage, the state also wants to pull $28.7 million from city Redevelopment Agency funds to meet gaps in state education funding — a move that’s being challenged in court by the California Redevelopment Association. 

    Rosenfield said the city has a “viable” financing program to recoup any redevelopment losses, but he added, “it will mean some projects get delayed.” And advocates said this fiscal “raiding” -- as one described  it -- could hamper efforts to expand affordable housing.

    The state’s use of redevelopment money to fill its budget gap has “indirect effects all over the city,” particularly in regard to affordable housing funding, said a mayoral staffer who wishes to remain anonymous.

    As low-income seniors, domestic violence victims and others brace for the latest fiscal storm, there is rising frustration about the dearth of alternatives on the legislative table — other than more service cuts and layoffs. These critics point to a lack of revenue proposals on the November ballot, or of any coordinated movement inside or outside of government, to raise revenue anytime soon.

    The immediate impacts of these latest cuts will be far-reaching, advocates say, and will include the following:

    •    diminished public-health staff to handle swine flu vaccinations;

    •    longer lines at the already over-burdened San Francisco General Hospital emergency room, where the wait can run several hours;

    •    no optometry or podiatry benefits for Medi-Cal recipients, meaning deteriorating health and discomfort for low-income diabetics and cancer patients; and

    •    decreased support for grocery shopping and other senior services — which may put some at risk of going without food.

    “It’s absolutely devastating,” said Tessie Guillermo, director of Zero Divide, a city nonprofit focused on economic inequality and technology. Guillermo noted the cuts are almost entirely to “services, which disproportionately serve poor, immigrants and working uninsured.”

    Coming on the heels of a hiring freeze at the Department of Public Health last year and deep reductions in health spending in this year’s city budget, this latest round of cuts — a $16.4 million incision — will slice public health services  closer to the bone.
    “I don’t know if there is anybody left to cut,” Guillermo said.  “We are going to see the impact of cuts at the crisis level immediately.”

    In planning for this fall’s swine flu immunization, she asked: “Do we vaccinate all public health workers or just those keeping their jobs?”

    Seniors left behind

    Equally dire is the evaporating support for In-Home Support Services, or IHSS, which serves roughly 20,000 clients in San Francisco — 72 percent of whom are over 65 and about 33 percent over the age of 80, according to the city’s IHSS Public Authority. The elderly are among the city's fastest-growing groups and "everyone's really scared," said Sarah Jarmon, a program director at Planning for Elders, a nonprofit senior advocacy group.

    Robert Chase, left, and James Nykolay took a bus from San Francisco to Sacramento this spring to rally at the State Capitol against proposed cuts to AIDS programs. Photo by Lizzy Tomei/The Public Press.

    For many seniors receiving IHSS, new state cuts  will mean no support for grocery shopping.

    "Without support, they might starve," Jarmon said. "There's no one to help them shop for groceries and not enough Meals on Wheels to go around."

    Compounding the IHSS cuts on Oct. 1, seniors will be hit with reduced grants from state supplemental funds designed to bolster SSI. Social Security recipients are ineligible for food stamps, said Colleen Rivecca, advocacy coordinator for St. Anthony’s Foundation. 

    “Any reduction in benefit level could affect their ability to purchase food for themselves," she said.

    Seniors already are coping with cuts in cost-of-living adjustments that mean smaller monthly benefit checks, said John Melone, who tracks legislation for the Senior Action Network. 

    “When you don’t have the income, you start figuring out if you buy your medication, pay your rent or you eat,” Melone said. “Some of these folks are actually skipping meals. Can you imagine living in San Francisco, one of the most expensive cities in the world, on $850  a month for everything? That’s rent, food, the occasional roll of toilet paper … you start counting the money — do I do laundry this month? This has got some of our people really upset.”

    How are these seniors coping?  “Not buying laundry detergent,” Melone said. Others are skipping meals and some are ending up on the streets. “There are more seniors sleeping on the street…they feel like they’re half a citizen.”

    Fraying  safety net deepens vulnerability

    Beyond the cuts’ most severe impacts, such as hunger and homelessness, advocates say that as services evaporate, the safety net aimed at preventing deprivation gets further tattered. 

    “This is definitely going to move a certain portion of people from being independent to dependent,” said Francis Aviana, communications director at St. Anthony's Foundation, which provides meals and other services to homeless people. “There are going to be choices between housing, food and medicine.  It's pretty hard to remain independent without those three things in place."

    As domestic violence shelters and AIDS treatment supports fall away, more people will move a step closer to homelessness, Aviana said. 

    "Every program you hear is closing, those people will be coming to us … you'll see more women in the dining center, more women in the social work center because that's where they end up after domestic violence if there is no shelter," Aviana said.

    AIDS treatment cuts, due to hit next month, are "going to be huge,” she added.

    "When you're talking about affecting mental health services, you’re also talking about affecting their ability to remain stable in other areas of their lives," Aviana said, such as paying rent, staying on medications and even remembering to eat. "The folks that come into our dining room come there because they have to — they don't have anything extra, beyond paying rent for an SRO."

    Alternatives anyone?

    Photo illustration 

    The onslaught of program and service cuts is fraying more than the safety net — it’s also fraying the resources and energy of advocates who would prefer to be waging  efforts to expand the protective web while fighting the root causes of the problems their groups combat.

     “The freak-out level is massive,” said longtime housing and community activist Rene Cazanave of the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse. "The state of community politics is really low. The problem is groups have burned themselves out fighting cuts … not only are they burnt out, but everybody knows the state cuts are coming down.  Nobody knows how bad this will be."

    Guillermo, of Zero Divide, said senior service groups, youth, health and homeless advocacy organizations are making efforts to coordinated response. But this work “takes people away from being able to respond to the needs of clients day to day," she said.

    The budget battles also clutter the path toward longer-term solutions, St. Anthony’s Rivecca explained: "We don't like always being reactive to cuts coming down, we like to be proactive." But advocates have to "make sure the safety net isn't gutted while we're looking toward the future." 

    A coalition of service groups is helping direct people to services and "mobilizing people to know what kinds of cuts are happening and how they can interface with policymakers," Rivecca said.

    But structural responses to the  ongoing budget crisis  are few and far between. There is talk of a “split roll” state property tax measure that would reform Proposition 13 and expand commercial property taxes — potentially raising up to $10 billion statewide, Cazanave said. But it’s unlikely this would reach the ballot before 2012.

    Cazanave said  there’s “nothing from the Democratic Party, nothing from labor,” about reforming Prop. 13. “There’s no discussion with the Democratic Party that would raise a penny.”
    Local revenue efforts have been at a standstill. Proposals last winter by Supervisor John Avalos “died for lack of a second,” said Cazanave. Avalos has recently proposed a fee on alcohol to help fund health and emergency services. That plan is being studied and he hopes to introduce legislation on the fee early next year.

    “I want to see revenue measures,” said Avalos.  “I worked throughout the year to get those on the ballot, but the numbers weren’t there to win. I pushed as far as I could go til the last minute, but things couldn’t go forward … the consultants were telling SEIU you don’t have a chance” on passing revenue measures on this year’s ballot.

    While  many are advocating new attempts to raise revenues, it’s widely expected that there will be few initiatives before next June. Avalos said he plans to build support for new revenue measures, such as a gross receipts tax, for the November 2010 ballot; anything before then would require a two-thirds vote since this is a non-election year.

    Avalos added that the city budget cut wars have left many affected groups weary and divided.

    “There needs to be some unity going forward, to help build the movement and power to pass measures,” he said. “What we had after the budget process was a lot of disunity. It’s really unfortunate. If we’re all trying to just get what we can for our own constituency, and not looking out for other groups, we’re looking at a disaster.”

    “We can’t make any more cuts, there are going to have to be revenue measures,” Melone said, adding, “as far as I can see it’s dead in the water as far as supervisors are concerned.”

    The mayoral staffer, speaking anonymously, agrees there's a need for long-term responses to the fund-cutting cycle: "The state makes cuts that hurt us and we turn around and make more cuts. Rather than shake our fist at the sun, why not make long-term structural changes?"

    Instead of new tax-based revenue measures, the staffer argued for efforts "to make San Francisco more economically competitive, so we grow our tax base in the long run."

    Cazanave insists it’s time for a new revenue discussion.

    "Local folks have to sit down and look at progressive tax measures,” Cazanave said. “We've talked in the past about new hotel taxes and others, but the economy is in the toilet and it wouldn't even raise that much. Right now what's lacking is getting the players to sit around a table and see what's possible."

    Reach the reporter at ccook[AT]

    Posted by Spot. Us on 09/17/09
  • 9/12/09
  • Supes on: the budget -- Mar advocates ‘a people’s budget’

    Although San Francisco’s city budget was passed in July, District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar says he believes taking a more fundamental process to passing it is in order.

    He advocates having "a people's budget," in which the process would solicit more grassroots involvement at "the early levels as opposed to where you have people rallying and begging at the last minute ... when they can't have as much of an impact on the budget."

    The supervisor calls the current budget process "dehumanizing," in pitting mental health clients, nonprofit organizations and city staff fighting over funds "when we should be working together to increase revenue so we can adequately staff the safety net and important staff and other programs in the city."

    Mar also says the Department of Public Health and human service agencies were "gutted" by budget cuts and said it would be "hard to restore" important programs in those agencies, many of which have been built up over generations. The city of San Francisco had to close a $438.1 deficit in this summer's budget deliberations.

    During a recent interview with the Public Press’s Patricia Decker, Mar spoke about his priorities in the city budget, praised the work of Supervisor John Avalos and Board President David Chiu and talked about a variety of solutions to raise much-needed revenue.

    Mar says that Avalos and Chiu played major roles in getting the add-backs. Now, he said, it was up to the office of Mayor Newsom to appropriate the money, which he adds, hasn't been the case in the past.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 09/12/09
  • 8/25/09
  • Public Press/KALW budget roundtable examines city’s fiscal crisis

    The Public Press and KALW (91.7 FM) teamed up for a budget roundtable that aired Aug. 17 on the Crosscurrents news program. A panel of local experts offered a lively and informative on-the-air discussion about San Francisco’s budget crisis and its impacts on residents and communities. Holly Kernan, KALW news director, hosted the discussion with Christopher D. Cook, editor of The Pubic Press City Budget Watchdog Project, and three prominent civic voices:
    Calvin Welch, program director of the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse.
    Sharen Hewitt, executive director of the Community Leadership Academy & Emergency Response Project (CLAER).
    Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association  (SPUR).
    Following is a transcript of the half-hour panel discussion, hosted by Holly Kernan and produced by The Public Press Budget Watchdog Editor Christopher Cook. To hear the show, go to Crosscurrents.

    Kernan: Earlier this year, San Francisco faced a nearly half- billion dollar shortfall. That’s right: half a billion. The city had to find ways to cut nearly $500 million out of its $ 6.6 billion annual spending. It seems like a good test case to take the pulse of cities around the Bay Area, so today we’re zeroing in on how that process works — and how it might be reformed.
    Our partners at The Public Press, which is a new online daily newspaper in town, launched a project called the City Budget Watchdog to find out how the process works. Watchdog Editor Christopher Cook joins me now to give us the background. Christopher is an award-winning journalist and former Bay Guardian city editor. I asked him where we stand now with the San Francisco budget.
    Cook: We’ve ended up with $6.6 billion, which involves cuts to public health and social service programs, pretty substantial cuts, and meanwhile, increases to police and fire budgets. Not as large as earlier increases were thought to be, but still increases for those divisions in city government. And we’re still waiting to hear from the state and the budget analyst’s office about what’s going to happen to impact that from the state cuts.
    Kernan: How did politics play into the budget?
    Cook: On one level, I think everyone would agree that the mayor’s run for governor is impacting this in terms of his interest in making sure there are no new taxes in the budget, and so they’ve been very clear in promoting that idea: that we passed this miracle budget that doesn’t cut police and fire or teachers, and also doesn’t raise taxes. And that does play well in (the) Central Valley and in other parts of Southern California. There’s no debating that.
    Within local politics, there’s this perennial battle between police and fire sectors, and public safety, and then public health. It’s a pretty sad and crazy battle when you think about it because the two are pretty intertwined. I mean, how can you have public safety without public health? How can you have public health without public safety? But interestingly, if you go back in city politics, there’s really some different cultural connections, in terms of where the budgets seem to appeal in terms of constituents, and so you’ve got the social and human service public health programs, like in the Tenderloin and other poor neighborhoods, serving folks who are near the bottom of society in terms of their health and their well-being.
    Kernan: Does it come down to who’s got the best lobbyist? Or who has a voice and who doesn’t?
    Cook: Partially. You know, there’s been some very intensive lobbying during this budget season, and the firefighters for instance, the union spent $75,000, by far the most of any lobbying group in the budget process. And you did have some very vocal protests from both the firefighter’s union and the police. You also had big protests from the health care workers and other public sector workers. So everybody was weighing in quite heavily.
    Kernan: We’re looking at the San Francisco budget process to understand how cities are dealing with shrinking revenues and increasing demand for many services. We’ve invited some of the people who work in San Francisco and whose constituents are directly affected by the cuts. We’ll get to hear their insights into the budget process, and how they might suggest we do it differently.
    Joining us now, Sharen Hewitt is the executive director of the Community Leadership Academy and Emergency Response Project ; Gabriel Metcalf is the executive director of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, otherwise known as SPUR; and Calvin Welch is program director at the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse.
    So, I want to ask all of you to indulge me in a quick lightning round question to get us started. So Sharen, let’s start with you: If you could propose one change to the budget process, what would it be?
    Hewitt: I would say that we really need to look at ensuring that the most vulnerable parts of our community are engaged, that we understand and look at the efficacy of some of our previous spending strategies.
    Welch: I think that the budget analyst and budget director functions, one of the mayor, one of the board of supervisors, should be combined. I think there should be one budget office that serves the mayor and the board of supervisors, and quit playing the games that are generally played between the executive and the legislative branch.
    Metcalf: I’d say what we should do is produce two- or three-year budgets so we understand what is a one-time problem and what is an ongoing problem.
    Kernan: Is the problem about how we do budgets about revenue, spending priorities?
    Metcalf: I think the clear majority of voters in San Francisco have signed up for this to be a high- tax, high-service city. And there’s not a lot of fundamental debate about that general idea. But if you work hard enough at it, you can spend any amount of money. And the needs are potentially limitless. And you see that at the national level with this talk about health care. It’s now 16 percent of GDP; it’s going to go up to 31 percent of GDP. And there’s no such thing as enough in many kinds of services, so there’s something just kind of universal about the problem of ‘How do we make decisions about whatever amount of money we spend?’ And because it is a diverse city, we don’t all agree about what the priorities are. So in essence, what you’re seeing is just the messiness of democracy, of different people having different priorities about what they want to spend the money on.
    Kernan: Sharen?
    Hewitt: Basically, I think that we have to move toward a fundamental commitment to ensuring equality of life for all the citizens of our city. And I think that far too long we’ve made political decisions that have left some segments of our populations exposed and excessively vulnerable. And I’m talking about some of the decisions that we saw through the budget process at the state. Who were the ultimate victims of that budget process? And I would say they were our young, our seniors. I would say they are part of what I think is a growing and emerging underclass of expendable people. And I think we really need to look at where our priorities are.
    Kernan: Because they don’t have lobbyists?
    Hewitt: Absolutely. The constituents that I represent, who were probably the hardest hit, they don’t have lobbyists. And they have and will continue to be part of what I call a permanent underclass. And I think we just can’t afford that.
    Kernan: All cities are feeling the squeeze. Is it just loss of tourism and other revenue or fundamentally deeper economic issues?
    Welch: There are fundamentally deep economic problems. The vulnerable people that Sharen talks about are vulnerable not only in the city budget, they are generally vulnerable to the economy that we have in the city. They are also kind of surplus folk. They are not employable, at least in terms of the economic activities in San Francisco. So I think the first thing we have to understand is that the problems that we are facing in municipal budgets across California do not come this time directly from government, they come from the private sector, they come from the economy.
    We did not spend our way into this recession — we lost value. We lost the economic base, especially in this — Gabriel wants to talk about a high-tax, high-service city — this is also a very pro-development city. This is a city that depends inordinately on the value and transactions of real estate, and when the real estate sector collapses — actually is driven over a cliff by the principal players — then there are consequences in municipal budgets. And I think to try to address the problems of the budget only within the four walls of city spending is to miss the 900-pound gorilla in this, which is if we continue to go back to doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome, then we are indeed crazy. And the same thing is blowing as hard as we can to try to re-inflate  —as SPUR, for example, is proposing — the real estate bubble that got us into the problem that we’re at. So I think we have to do some heavy lifting and some hard thinking about what kind of economy should come out of what is going to be, I believe, a very prolonged recession in Northern California.
    Kernan: Gabriel?
    Metcalf: Capitalism has a boom-bust cycle, as Calvin well knows, and as long as we exist within capitalism, we’re going to be experiencing ups and downs in the economy. And we have some policies in place, in particular (former Supervisor) Tom Ammiano’s Rainy Day Fund, which functioned to smooth the revenues to the city somewhat. But in hindsight, the Rainy Day Fund probably wasn’t strong enough to do as much smoothing as we probably really want. We probably need to do a better job of using our own policies to smooth the boom-bust cycle of capitalism.
    Kernan: Let me move back to the budget process. It's been called in The Public Press’s reporting a sort of dog- and- pony show that’s in some ways a fiction, where you cut things and then people go before the board and lobby   – what communities and interests are not getting a seat at the table?
    Hewitt: I think there are a number of the entities that are not being represented in these high-level discussions. You know, clearly, families, and clearly young people and children. I want to talk a little bit about my constituency. As you know the CLAER Project is about seven years old and we are not sophisticated political lobbyists or advocates. We’re just on the ground, responding to families. We work primarily with public housing residents. And just to give you a snapshot of what we’re talking about, we’re dealing with families who are largely single moms – average family about two children. Roughly, even before this recession, we’re talking about average income of about $12,000 a year.
    Kernan: $12,000 a year?
    Hewitt: $12,000 a year for a family of three. And I would say they are some of the sharpest economists in town, and continue to be, managing and negotiating off of that kind of a budget. I say that the issues of looking at the opportunities for economic upward mobility for them has completely collapsed in this market. Clearly, as I said before, we’re dealing with some dual and parallel realities in this city and across the nation. That the kinds of strategies that have been deployed, we need to look at in terms of has our government been effective in terms of mitigating this permanent underclass and providing economic opportunities, even when we did have resources? Whether we look at increasing taxes or whether we look at strategies that bring more synergy to our public demands on both the federal and state government, is really the kinds of things I’m interested in talking about. Because it’s really not whether or not we’re capable of generating enough revenue in San Francisco to sustain this population, but the continuity of public strategies and the commitment to this class of people from the federal, state and local governments.
    Kernan: So, Calvin, is there a way the city can generate more revenue and deploy it more equitably?
    Welch: Well, that’s the hope. It seems to me the reality that we face is that as a city we simply no longer care about who works here. We care more about who invests here, who buys real estate here, who sells real estate here.
    So in my active lifetime in this city, we’ve gone from a city which employed a majority of its residents in San Francisco, to a city that now is almost 50-50. That is to say, half of the working age population in San Francisco don’t work in San Francisco. We’re increasingly housing a regional workforce because they’re the only people who can afford the very high cost of market-rate housing in San Francisco. And we have pretty much declared surplus low-income residents. I think as a city, economic surplus they’re not — they turn out to cost society a great deal to deal being ignored. They show up in emergency rooms, they show up in hospitals, they show up in jail, which is a very expensive housing program, and an even more expensive medical program.
    So, I think we have to get smart about how we deliver services. There’s a whole program that could be devoted to that. I think it has to look at employing San Franciscans in dealing with San Franciscans, and in that regard it will address income levels. But I think that we have to think through what kind of a city we are, as opposed to the kind of city some of us would like to be, and figure out the best strategies to employ the maximum number of San Franciscans in San Francisco.
    Kernan: So let’s take the long view here. Gabriel, what are some of the systemic solutions to this mess?
    Metcalf: There are, I guess, two levels to this conversation. One is the economic base itself that generates the money that both pays wages to people but also pays the taxes. The second level is the budget process. And they both need work. We have been essentially flat in total number of employment in the city since 1970. And beneath that aggregate number, lots and lots of kinds of work have left the city and been replaced by other kinds of work. And Calvin’s right that it’s created a situation where it’s basically the highest-end employment in the whole country’s economy, locates here. And part of that has been something that lots of cities have seen as manufacturing leaves the cities and eventually leaves the United States altogether — and we cease to make as many things in this country as we used to — we have not figured out how to reverse that. And probably all of us here would think we need to figure something out.
    Within the industries that are located here, we probably can do a lot better job at making them work for the residents and having better career ladders that make more kinds of jobs accessible to more people. I’d rather face the problems we have than the problems of a city that’s located in a region where the entire economy is collapsing. At least there are opportunities for us, so in some ways we should be able to do better.
    Kernan: Sharen Hewitt, solutions?
    Hewitt: I’m going to respond to what Gabriel said. I think we really do have some opportunities here in San Francisco, unlike the rest of the country, because of the small numbers. And I think we have enough services and I think we have the intellectual capacity. Do we have the political will to ensure parity and a level of deliberate attention to all segments of the population? The budget process does not have to elude us in the way that it has.
    I think one of the missed opportunities is our use of key commitments on the part of the city and ensuring that those commitments have the integrity and forethought of a longer-term vision. For example, we have a master planning process here in this city that looks at our development strategies. We also have a number of documents that we submit to the federal government, the mayor’s office of community investment has a major document, the housing authority has a major document. There seems to be not always the kind of continuity in terms of planning and forethought to look at accommodating our existing population, and I think we’ve missed a tremendous amount of opportunities in that regard.
    Kernan: And Calvin, let’s end with you. Solutions. Systemic solutions.
    Welch: Gabriel is correct in the sense that there is a sequential relationship between the budget crisis and the broader economy. On the budget side, the notion of multiple-year budgets is going to be on the ballot this November. A key component of that charter amendment is putting the city employee unions’ memorandums of understanding forward in the process so that supervisors and mayors understand how much they’re going to have to pay their workforce — which is after all, what, 80 percent of the budget? — instead of passing a budget, and then having the mayor — generally for political advantage — negotiate contracts with city employee unions. That’s going to be on the ballot. People should look very strong at that measure, and I would urge their support for that measure.
    Second of all, we have to put together the budget analysis of both the board of supervisors and the mayor. The ‘95 new charter that created a strong mayor I think did a great disservice while at the same time giving increased powers to the board of supervisors over the budget. Before ‘95, the board could only cut a budget, they could not add. They can add, but they’re not present at the table in creating the budget.
    The legislative function in this country is control of the purse strings. Our local legislature does not have control of the purse strings. We need to correct that. We need to create a more even balance between the executive branch and the legislative branch in the formation of the budget, which addresses the real power in the city, which are the departments – that’s where the budget decisions are made. I know that departments sometimes defeat mayors. I know that departments often defeat the board of supervisors. And the great victory of departments in San Francisco is that they’re invisible. Nobody really understands the incredible important role they have in creating the basic budget document. And if you want to change the way we spend money, you’re going to have to change the culture of the bureaucracy in San Francisco, which is the subject of another program.
    On the economic side, on the broader economic side, we have to look at what seems to me is the reality that this country faces, that this region faces and this city faces. What the hell do we do for a living? How are people going to work? What is work in the 21st century in North America? 
    We are going to have a very long recession, employment-wise. Already talked jobless recovery. People are not going to be put back to work. And the people that Sharen are talking about, African-Americans, haven’t been put back to work, one could argue, since the mid-‘60s and have dropped out of the unemployment figures, are no longer even counted. We’re going to be at 10, 11 percent unemployment very quickly, and it’s going to stay that way for a very long time. And 10 or 11 percent unemployment, the way it’s measured now, is unemployment of the most employable people. So when the most employable people —   10 percent of them — cannot find work, imagine what marginally employed, or marginally educated or indifferently educated people face.
    We’re going to have to   — without sounding too grand — reinvent work in urban America. And clearly the green economy, sustainability, has an opportunity. Health care has an opportunity. In-home health services. A program that uses local people to provide fundamental care for people who need assistance in their daily lives. Seniors or profoundly disabled people. Keeps people out of hospitals, cuts costs on the hospitalization side. That is an employment opportunity for thousands that cannot be off-shored, that cannot be moved to Taiwan. We gotta take a look at that. But there are many other opportunities that exist that my mind simply cannot grasp. We need to put our best and brightest on that question. It is fundamental not only to future budgets but our future economy and wellbeing as a city.
    Kernan: So finally, what about some rays of hope. The national economic stimulus package is supposed to do some of this. Rays of hope. Can we end on that note? Sharen, Calvin, Gabe? Whio wants to start?



    : The ray of hope is that this is a community that wants to chart a different path from the rest of America. And this is a community where we all agree that we want a robust set of public services. And so that fundamental question has been answered. We need to create a pro-growth environment that will generate the money we want to provide the level of services that is different from the rest of America. We are trying to make up for shortfalls in the national level and especially in the state level in one city. And so that’s our challenge. We know what we want to do, but we have to generate a lot of wealth locally to pay for what the state and the federal governments are not doing. I think we have all of the tools we need to do that, and so I think that’s what we really need to be focused on is growing the economic base of this city so we can pay for the services we want.



    : Sharen — rays of hope.



    : Well, I think that essentially San Francisco as a major city is actually small enough for us to be able to measure the effectiveness of innovation and a real commitment on the part of our public leadership here. But again, I think San Francisco has the capacity to join voice with a regional strategy as well as a national agenda to refocus our government back on our urban settings.



    : Calvin — any rays of hope?



    : Yeah. I think both the two rays of hope from Miss Sunshine and Mr. Sunshine are — I certainly embrace and think will happen. And in addition, I think, one of the good things that came out of this budget process was that across disciplinary lines, if you will, across the silos that so separate nonprofits and city employees — there was a fundamental and basic discussion and dialogue that developed this time around with key members of the board of supervisors. Unfortunately, the mayor kind of absented himself from that process. But I think there’s a very good civic dialogue under way. We have to figure out a way to deepen and broaden it.


    There is some desire towards the end of this year, beginning of next year, to actually formalize those dialogues into some sort of community congress that will come up with a set of actionable proposals at the local level. I am very hopeful that that kind of dialogue will result in significant and meaningful changes that, I agree with Gabe, we do want to do in San Francisco — and I agree with Sharen that we do have the capacity to do it. We are small enough, we are committed enough. I think we may even be smart enough to do it.




    This program was a co-production with The Public Press, produced by editor Christopher Cook.


    Thanks to

    The Public Press City Budget Watchdog project

    : Editors Christopher D. Cook and Kristina Shevory,   reporters Patricia Decker, Michael Pistorio, Mary Catherine Plunkett, Lizzy Tomei and Kevin Stark. Thanks also to The Public Press editors Michael Stoll and Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig, and to our fund-raising partners at Posted by Spot. Us on 08/25/09
  • 8/21/09
  • SF Supes skirt law in restoring funds to service providers

    From the Public Press as part of their City Budget Watchdog series for Spot.Us.

    By Kevin Stark

    Read the original article here.

    By Kevin Stark
    The Public Press

    Amid intense lobbying to restore social-service funding to this year’s budget, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors earmarked $1 million for specific organizations, flouting the city charter. 

    Volunteers (left to right) Donna, Ali Frank and Susan Mayo prepare "Breakfast for Dinner" for the clients attending Ladies' Night at the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center on Capp St. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    The law, however, requires budget and “add-back” funds be directed to city departments, which can then disburse monies to nonprofit contractors.

    After the mayor proposed a $6.6 billion budget with deep cuts to health and human services in June, the supervisors added back an unprecedented $43 million in spending, most of which went directly to city agencies. But private nonprofit groups, many of which have been contracted to provide city services for years, pushed hard to restore funding for particular programs addressing homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness and more.

    The supervisors used a technical loophole to direct “add back” funding for at least one program by specifying a particular stretch of one street where the program is based. Supervisor John Avalos confirmed that the board restored a program at Mission Neighborhood Resource Center for the Homeless called “Ladies’ Night,” which provides homeless drop-in counseling and drug treatment services for women.

    A July civil grand jury report published July 1 says this approach has become common practice in City Hall in recent years. While city officials say it is not technically a violation of the city charter, it sidesteps the intent of the law — to prevent the legislative branch from micromanaging public contracts. The so-called add-back process also empowers vociferous groups, not necessarily the effective ones, to lobby for their own continuation, critics say.

    Add-backs, which start in early June after the mayor proposes a budget, are a political minefield for supervisors. They are lobbied heavily by community organizations, yet in the end are not supposed to identify specific nonprofits for restorations. Such “targeted” add-backs would violate the law, according to the city attorney’s office. If proven, they could lead to misconduct charges, though that has never happened.

    “They are not allowed by the charter to interfere with the decisions as to who gets how much money and for what,” Monique Zmuda, the city’s deputy controller, said. “That is only for the department head. The reasons are that the board is supposed to be setting policy and not making a determination as to who is going to get paid how much.”

    Budget line items go to department heads, who have authority over payment of nonprofit organizations. The board may only direct city departments to restore funding for services, and the department then chooses which nonprofits get the cash. The city charter is clear: The Board of Supervisors does not “have any power or authority, nor shall they dictate, suggest or interfere,” in the compensation or contract supervised by the mayor’s office or department heads.

    But the supervisors have specific groups in mind when they move money back and forth in budget season. In fact, this year they kept track of which organizations they wanted to fund on a chart meant for internal use. When it came time to vote on the appropriations, the references to specific organizations were removed from the public document.

    Photo by moonlightbulb.

    Spending restorations are one of the few political tools available to disenfranchised communities and the public services that aid them, say supporters of the nonprofit groups.

    Calvin Welch, an organizer with the Council of Community Housing Organizations, said that without the add-back process, there would be less funding for “elderly, the youth, people with mental and physical disabilities, people that on their own would have a very difficult time organizing and advocating for themselves.”

    Squeaky wheels

    The civil grand jury report found that add-back restorations circumvent the city’s process for identifying ineffective nonprofit organizations. If a city department eliminates a nonprofit group for being ineffective, but it has enough political influence with the board, it could have its funding restored, the report concluded.

    Elizabeth Boileau, chair of the civil grand jury, said the restorations “upend” the city’s methods for managing nonprofits. “We found that add-backs should be stopped,” Boileau said.

    A supervisor could be removed from office if his or her actions are found to constitute official misconduct, said Buck Delventhal, a deputy city attorney.

    The add-back process comes after the mayor proposes a budget on June 1. The Board of Supervisors then has a month to produce a service restoration. This year, as the city faced a $438 million deficit and the budget-cutting process consumed the city’s governing infrastructure, the process was extended into late July.

    The process often turns frantic as contract service providers lobby, and sometimes rally noisily, for their programs.

    Many community groups with ties to service providers say the lobbying period is a crucial entree for poor and vulnerable social-service beneficiaries in the halls of power. The Coalition on Homelessness lists nearly $5 million in restorations that came from the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee, including nonprofit groups such as Tenderloin Health, Caduceus Outreach Services and SRO Families United Collaborative. The mayor was listed as restoring $2 million.

    Targeted add-backs

    Add-backs are one of the few ways the board can impact spending after the mayor proposes a budget, other than simply cutting programs. Yet publicly, supervisors disavow targeted add-backs.

    “From my end, I’m not interested in telling the department to give money exactly to an organization,” District 11 Supervisor Avalos said. “If you look at our add-back list, we don’t mention specific organizations. We talk about departments.”

    Supervisor Sophie Maxwell said she tries not to be specific with restorations: “You can get into problems with that. I think it’s wrong.”

    But Maxwell acknowledged that when she first became a supervisor in 2000, the board used to target specific organizations outright. The process made supervisors uncomfortable and the board moved away from the practice, she said. Maxwell, who represents District 10, was chair of the budget committee in 2002.

    She said she believed supervisors should be funding services, not organizations, and that the law should be more specific.

    “If it isn’t against charter, it should be,” Maxwell said.

    But the civil grand jury report suggests that supervisors veered toward a form of veiled earmarking, as opposed to providing funding directly to favored service providers.

    Ladies’ Night

    Jamie, 44, has utilized the needle exchange, which is provided by the Homeless Youth Alliance, for the past year.  She said she wouldn't attend if it was a mixed gender event. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    Every Thursday for the past five years, homeless and drug-addicted women – including some who work as prostitutes – have sought respite through the Mission Neighborhood Resource Center’s Ladies’ Night program. [ See related video by The Public Press’ Monica Jensen.]

    The two-hour session is one of the city’s only drop-in events exclusively for women, offering needle exchange, counseling, massages, dinner and games. Laura Guzman, the center’s director, said the environment allows women to “feel safe from their boyfriends, johns and police.”

    In past years, the board has used add-backs to create new funding for programs. Ladies’ Night was initially funded through grants, but in 2006 Guzman lobbied the Board of Supervisors and secured $150,000 for the program through budget restorations.

    Since 2006, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office has cut funding to the program twice, most recently last February. In both instances, after intense lobbying and protests by supporters, the board restored money for Ladies’ Night.

    Deleted from documents

    Records from this year’s add-back process support this claim. One chart from the board’s budget and finance committee – provided by the clerk of the board and time/date stamped 6 p.m. on July 1 – contains a column specifically for which community-based organizations should get add-backs. In this column, one entry reads, “Restores funding for Ladies’ Night,” and lists the Mission Neighborhood Health Center. The list also allocates $455,000 for three shelters run by the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

    In another chart distributed to the media in the Board of Supervisors’ chambers, an hour after the timestamp on the first chart, the organization column is missing. For the Ladies’ Night line item, the entry has been changed to read, “Restores funding for comprehensive bilingual drop-in services to homeless women and men on the 16th Street corridor”— where the health center is located.

    When asked whether Ladies’ Night was restored using a technical loophole, Avalos nodded his head.

    “That was an effort to maintain that type of service in that part of town,” he said.

    Avalos said community organizations were listed on the final chart to give the public a better idea of the services provided, but that the departments are not given names of any organizations to fund.

    “This is the final list,” Avalos said, indicating the chart without specific organizations. “What goes out publicly and what goes out to the departments is different.”

    Zmuda said that listing a specific group on the chart does not constitute misconduct. The official budget, which does not list specific organizations, is the legal document, she said. Delventhal, the deputy city attorney, agreed.

    “If it is not in the budget, it is not binding on the departments,” Delventhal said.

    Zmuda said that under Avalos, the board has been more focused on services than on specific organizations. She said that the detailed chart specifically naming Ladies’ Night was probably an early document used for identifying where services are most needed.

    Members of the Senior Bocce Ball Club at Crocker Amazon Playground. Photo by Max Rosenblum/The Public Press.

    On the add-back chart, 12 line items reference specific programs, locations or projects. These add-backs total $2.1 million in funding.

    Seven items are for social-service organizations, and the other five listed are city-funded programs or parks, which is permitted under the city charter. But even city-run programs lobby heavily. The users of a bocce ball and tennis court in the Excelsior District called Avalos for weeks until they were able to restore the $100,000 that had been slated for renovations there.

    Charter’s imbalance of power

    When the city charter was first written in the 1930s, the Board of Supervisors had no power over the budget, Zmuda said. The charter was rewritten in 1996 to allow the board to add and cut funds after the mayor proposes the budget. But the law still allows the mayor to veto proposed cuts, to choose not to spend — which Newsom has done repeatedly — or to cut the budget midyear, which the board has no way of challenging.

    In 2008, Newsom issued midyear cuts in August, just weeks after the supervisors’ add-back list was released. The mayor never spent 41 percent of the board’s restorations.

    “In essence we are subordinate to the mayor,” Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said.  “It makes it a tough challenge on a $6.7 billion budget.”

    “For the mayor, making budget cuts is a really easy way of setting policy,” said Bob Offer-Westort, editor of the Street Sheet newspaper and a civil rights organizer for the Coalition on Homelessness. “He doesn’t have to negotiate with anybody.”

    Funding for nonprofit service providers frequently comes between Newsom and the Board of Supervisors. The mayor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but supervisors were eager to talk about the broken budgeting process.


    “It’s frustrating, it shouldn’t be that way,” Avalos said.

    “Usually it takes a people’s budget coalition to prevent the mayor’s office from gutting human and health service programs,” Supervisor Eric Mar said.
    To counter the power of the mayor, the board sometimes cuts funding for a program that is important to the administration; and vice versa. Offer-Westort calls this back-and-forth cutting a fiscal version of “mutual assured destruction.”

    Winners and losers

    Some supervisors criticize the restoration process, and community groups say the system is exploited by well-connected organizations.

    “Many larger nonprofits, and nonprofits who have been around for a while, understand the landscape,” Mirkarimi said, adding that politically experienced organizations often win out. “It pits nonprofits against nonprofits in a way that I find barbaric.”   

    Welch, a veteran of city budget wars, says the groups that trumpet their cause most effectively are likely to reap the rewards: “The squeaky wheel gets the juice.”

    Much of the deal making happens in committee. Supervisors on the budget committee, including District 9’s David Campos and District 5’s Mirkarimi “definitely had more of a voice for fighting for add-backs than other districts,” said Mar, who represents District 1.

    “Being on the budget committee gives a supervisor tremendous advantage in getting what they want added back,” Mar said.

    The July 1 civil grand jury report concurred, finding that in years past, targeted add-backs were often made in response to “political maneuvering.”

    “In general, you need to [have] the chair of that committee with you,” Offer-Westort said. “So, you lobby. You go in and make your case. You do whatever you need to get heard.”

    Reach the reporter at kstark[AT]

    Posted by Spot. Us on 08/21/09
  • 8/18/09
  • Public Presser breaks news on excessive overtime pay to city firefighters

    From the Public Press

    On July 15, Kevin Stark of The Public Press, as part of the community-funded City Budget Watchdog series, reported exclusively that the San Francisco Fire Department was the only major city division whose overtime pay grew in the past year -- to the tune of $26.4 million in fiscal year 2008-09, an increase of 14 percent.

    This startling finding was reported in light of the city dealing with a $438 million deficit.

    Nearly a month later -- on Aug. 12 -- the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner both had prominent front-page stories, following Stark's findings of excessive overtime pay to city firefighters. The Chronicle article reported that 89 city workers made more than $30,000 each in overtime pay during the first six months of 2009 -- and that firefighters collected the most. The Examiner noted that the overtime costs amounted to $2,400 a day and that some fire commanders collected overtime while the city is threatening to close stations and cut shifts.

    Stark first reported that the city's four other large departments -- police, sheriff, transportation and public health -- all managed to decrease overtime by an average of 21 percent in the past year -- which the Examiner article also reported. Stark also went beyond the overtime costs to examine the root causes for this discrepancy.

    Overtime for firefighters has risen 169 percent in the past five years. Most of that came in 2005 -- the year after voters endorsed a measure that required all 42 firehouses to stay open day and night. That year, overtime shot up 90 percent. Healthy raises through union contract two years later made firefighters' base pay climb even higher, a recipe for skyrocketing budgets. To add to this, the rise in overtime pay followed a hiring freeze instituted two years ago.

    Stark also noted the politics behind the issue, including Mayor Gavin Newsom's strong support for public safety. He presented a balanced look by interviewing critics -- such as Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, who contended that the Fire Department’s continued growth is evidence of the powerful firefighters' union's ability to muscle beneficial contract deals. He spoke to supporters like Tom O'Connor, treasurer of San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798, who disagreed with an assessment of Supervisor John Avalos. In 2007, Avalos said, "the firefighters and the police officers were able to line up their contract with the mayor's election. So during that election year, the mayor gave away the kitchen sink with wages and benefits, a 7 percent increase yearly that the board didn't negotiate."

    O'Connor said the union has shown flexibility in subsequent years. "We were the first ones last year to give back. We gave back 3 percent. This year we gave back 4 percent." And O'Connor said that comparisons with other cities only go so far because everything is more expensive here.

    "You have to look at the cost of living in the Bay Area and look at the salaries accordingly," he added. "You have to look at the delivery of services over the last decades. We have been more and more efficient in our delivery of services to the public."

    We at The Public Press are pleased that both the Chronicle and Examiner followed suit last week and reported on the topic of overtime pay in the Fire Department.

    Stark's report highlights the critical role -- and need -- that an independent press plays in society. We congratulate him for first reporting this important issue.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 08/18/09
  • 8/18/09
  • Budget Blues Special


    From KALW

    Earlier this year, San Francisco faced a nearly half billion dollar shortfall. The city had to find ways to cut nearly 500 million dollars out of its 6.6 billion dollar annual spending. It seems like a good test case to take the pulse of cities around the Bay, so we’re zeroing in on how that process works—and how it might be reformed. On this special discussion we were joined by: (1) Sharen Hewitt, Executive Director of the Community Leadership Academy & Emergency Response Project, (2) Gabriel Metcalf is the Executive Director of San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association, otherwise known as SPUR and (3) Calvin Welch is Program Director at the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse. We’d like to thank the Public Press and Spot Us for reporting the SF budget watchdog project: Editor Christopher D. Cook and reporters Patricia Decker, Michael Pistorio, Mary Catherine Plunkett, Kristina Shevory, Lizzy Tomei and Kevin Stark. Thanks also to Michael Stoll and Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig.

    Posted by Kara Andrade on 08/18/09
  • 8/17/09
  • Hear Public Press/KALW budget roundtable on ‘Crosscurrents’ at 5 p.m. Monday

    On Monday make sure to catch the Public Press/KALW budget roundtable, on KALW’s “Crosscurrents” news program at 5 p.m.

    You can support the work of the Public Press and their City Budget Watchdog series here.

    The panel of local experts gathers for what promises to be a lively and enriching on-the-air discussion about San Francisco’s budget crisis. Tune in to 91.7 FM to hear the show, or go to the site later for an archived podcast.

    Also check out the Public Press Web site for full audio, text and an interactive presentation on the city budget and its impacts on residents and communities.

    On the air with host Holly Kernan will be Christopher Cook, editor of The Public Press’ City Budget Watchdog project. Guests on the panel are:

    • Calvin Welch, longtime housing activist and program director of the San Francisco Information Clearinghouse
    • Sharen Hewitt (former top Housing Authority advisor and executive director of the Community Leadership Academy & Emergency Response Project
    • Gabriel Metcalf, executive director, San Francisco Planning & Urban Research Association

    Note: This program my be modified or postponed depending on the status of the BART transit strike. Stay tuned to KALW and The Public Press for updates.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 08/17/09
  • 8/14/09
  • Supes On: The budget – “There needs to be more dialogue” say Maxwell of city budget

    From the City Budget Watchdog series.

    Posted by SF Public Press ~ on 08/14/09
  • 8/5/09
  • Supes on: the budget -- 'The lowest-income workers took the greatest hit in this budget,' Dist. 11 Supervisor John Avalos says

    ‘We wanted to make sure there was equity in how the budget was approved.’

    Supervisor John Avalos, chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, addresses coalition building, community organizing, his fight to save key social services, his closed-door agreement with Mayor Gavin Newsom and his frustrations with the budget process. 


    Posted by Spot. Us on 08/05/09
  • 8/3/09
  • City won't move mental health clinic, raises privacy concerns

    By Lizzy Tomei
    The Public Press


    Southeast Mission Geriatric client Margaret Moore joins other protesters outside the clinic at a press conference July 24. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    After protests by patient advocates, the city last week reversed its decision to move an Outer Mission geriatric mental health program more than two miles west, meaning elderly clients may continue to receive care in the neighborhood.

    But the decision was accompanied by another controversy — whether mentally ill patients belonged in the media spotlight when their clinic was threatened with relocation.

    The Department of Public Health expressed concern that patient privacy laws may have been violated at a July 24 press conference staged outside the clinic. A spokeswoman cited media coverage of the event that featured video and interviews with clients who have mental illnesses.

    “Because of concerns over possible HIPPA [sic] infractions due to client's [sic] appearing on video and being interviewed at last week's press conference, we are currently reviewing policies and procedures,” department spokeswoman Eileen Shields wrote in an e-mail Friday. HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which outlines legal provisions for patient privacy and confidentiality between clients and health providers.

    Shields declined to divulge details about why the department called off the move. “Inasmuch as the clinic is going to remain open, further inquiry on the topic is moot,” she wrote.

    On Monday Francisca Oropeza, a psychiatric social worker at Southeast Mission Geriatric, stood by the clinic's decision to hold a press conference attended by outspoken clients, suggesting the privacy argument was disingenuous.

    “Even if they have mental illness, they have a right to express themselves,” she said. “Just to assume because people are mentally ill and older that they can’t express themselves is disrespectful and condescending.”

    Oropeza said she believed no HIPAA infractions occurred.

    She added that she was confident that clients who attended the press conference possessed the mental competence to consent to interviews with the press, although she could appreciate the department’s concern. Those who managed to attend the gathering to protest the clinic’s closure are among the highest-functioning clients it serves, Oropeza said.

    Southeast Mission Geriatric Services’ staff and program of care had been slated to move to another facility, in the Ocean View-Merced Heights neighborhood, as part of departmentwide restructuring resulting from deep budget cuts this summer. The city is nearly done finding more than $400 million in savings in a budget season of unprecedented deficits.

    A little more than a week ago, the health department had defended the relocation of Southeast Mission Geriatric as a way to preserve services, despite opposition from clinic staff and patients who said the move would disrupt their lives and compromise care. At the time, the department said it would offer patients vouchers to pay for taxis to the new location.

    Southeast Mission Geriatric has been in the Mission Street building since the 1980s and has survived several threats of closure.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 08/03/09
  • 7/27/09
  • City budget shuffle moves geriatric center

     By Lizzy Tomei

    The Public Press

    Joanie Marguardt (left) and Meshá Mongé-Irizarry (center) protest the impending closure of Southeast Mission Geriatric Services. The Department of Public Health plans to relocate the center's program to a facility on Ocean Avenue. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    The impending closure of a 25-year-old Mission Street mental health clinic will force its clients to travel two and a half miles to seek essential services.

    The change has frustrated advocates for the elderly and health care workers, who say the city’s decision to consolidate services with another center on the western side of the city doesn’t do much to help balance the city’s budget but is a major disruption for hundreds of physically and mentally vulnerable adults.

    Southeast Mission Geriatric Services' programs will relocate from southern Mission Street to the OMI Family Center on Ocean Avenue, the Department of Public Health confirmed in a Friday statement. The move, proposed earlier this summer as part of city budget negotiations, comes despite the Board of Supervisors’ recent restoration of funding, which some supervisors intended to keep facilities like Southeast Mission Geriatric Services open.

    The center, which provides psychiatric care and case management to mostly low-income older adults from the Mission, Bayview Hunter's Point, Bernal Heights and other neighborhoods, is one of several social service programs in San Francisco shuffled by budgetary restructuring and cuts. In the case of Southeast Mission Geriatric, the health department says consolidating office space will preserve funding for services.

    But while Southeast Mission Geriatric's program of care for older adults will continue to operate after it moves to the Ocean Avenue facility, clients and clinic staff have said the move will threaten access to treatment and disrupt patients’ daily lives. In addition to coping with mental illness, many of the center’s clients have physical illnesses and limited mobility. Seeking care at the new facility will mean a longer and unfamiliar commute for many.

    Southeast Mission Geriatric Services and the Department of Public Health dispute the number of clients who are served by the mental health clinic. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    On Friday, carrying signs handwritten in English and Spanish, clients and other supporters gathered in front of Southeast Mission Geriatric to demand that mental health services for seniors remain in the neighborhood. Joanie Marguardt, a 61-year-old client, held a sign that read: "Do NOT close this clinic serving 270+ low-income older adults in an accessible central location."

    Since the center's closure was first proposed, the Department of Public Health has been careful to point out that its program was not being cut, just relocated. But given the supervisors' recent restoration of millions of dollars in funding for social services and community programs, some protesters were baffled by the department’s decision to shutter the clinic.

    “I’m really no longer trying to see the rationale in what they do,” said Pamela Fischer, a member of the board of directors of NAMI San Francisco, an affiliate of the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

    “It seems very arbitrary,” she said. “This doesn’t strike me as being reasonable.”

    District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who attended the protest along with fellow supervisors Chris Daly and David Campos, said the center is one of several casualties of the "policy ping-pong match" over the budget at City Hall. He also spoke of a worrying trend of "creeping privatization and consolidation of services" under the administration of Mayor Gavin Newsom.

    In a statement Friday, the health department defended the relocation, noting that it planned to provide taxi vouchers for clients with difficulty accessing the new site.

    “Given a choice, we prioritize money for services, not to pay rent,” Bob Cabaj, the director of community behavioral health services, was quoted as saying in the statement. “Relocating this small team to the same office as another mental health team enables us to preserve services.”

    The health department also acknowledged that the transition would be difficult for clients and staff.

    “How are they going to get there when they live right around here?” said Margaret Moore, a client. Photo by Lizzy Tomei/The Public Press.

    “We have never experienced a relocation that did not initially upset some of the people involved,” Cabaj said. “Yet, we also see that three months after the relocation, people rarely remember the issue.”

    The department also noted that most of the services provided by Southeast Mission Geriatric are housecalls, so most clients would not notice the relocation.

    But the center’s staff and Department of Public Health officials disagree about the extent of the center’s services. When the closure was first proposed in June, the health department and Southeast Mission Geriatric provided significantly different numbers for the center's caseload. Staff said they served more than 270 clients, while the department identified a caseload of 187. Both counts grouped home and on-site services together.

    Health department officials with details of the closure could not be reached for comment Friday. But Dino Diodati, the contractor who built the clinic more than two decades ago and has remained its landlord since, said that he had been told the space would be vacated by Aug. 8. Clinic staff expect to begin moving out of their offices next week.

    Seeking alternatives to relocation, clinic staff recently identified other Mission social service groups in need of offices -- or faced with relocation -- that had agreed to share the clinic space and split rent costs. Diodati has also offered his tenants a 7 percent discount on their rent.

    Diodati, who converted a former supermarket to build Southeast Mission Geriatric, has watched the center both expand and fight cuts for many years. “I put this clinic together a long time ago,” he said. “These guys are the front line.”

    The availability of the program's mental health services at another location after the shutdown is little consolation, he added. "That’s the reason why you have community clinics, to serve the local community.”

    “How are they going to get there when they live right around here?” said Margaret Moore, 72, a Southeast Mission Geriatric client. “We have enough clients to keep this center open.”

    Posted by Lila LaHood on 07/27/09
  • 7/23/09
  • Public defender and children's services win back funds as revised budget passes in San Francisco

     By Patricia Decker and Kevin Stark

    The Public Press

    Sean Elsbernd, right, was one of two supervisors to vote against a revised budget passed Tuesday that restored $650,000 to the office of Public Defender Jeff Adachi, left. Photo by Patricia Decker/The Public Press.

    A concerted last-minute campaign by the San Francisco public defender to restore previously cut funds succeeded as the Board of Supervisors passed a revised $6.7 billion budget Tuesday.

    The budget was the culmination of months of wrangling among agencies and political factions that pitted, most audibly, social services and public health agencies against public safety to bridge an unprecedented funding gap of more than $400 million.

    Winners Tuesday also included public financing of political campaigns, children's services and the district attorney.

    The police department’s top brass, the convention center, the ballet, the opera and a nonprofit theater all lost out, as their budgets were gouged to balance the city’s ledger.

    The 9-2 budget vote came after months of adjustments and political trading that left few completely satisfied.

    Supervisors also fought among themselves on a series of amendments intended to wrest power in future budgeting from the mayor.

    Legal funding shuffle

    The move by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi to re-fund the public defender was hotly debated. Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s office won back $650,000, and district attorney Kamala Harris also got an additional $250,000. That money was raised by extracting $900,000 from the $8.3 million indigent defense fund of the Superior Court.

    The loudest dissenting voice in this switch belonged to Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who proposed to split the money equally between the two offices, but his idea failed.

    Through a bit of political theater, Adachi defended the restored funding by promising that it would provide high-quality legal help to poor defendants. “There’s a big difference between the assembly-line justice and the kind of justice that we try to provide here in San Francisco,” Adachi said, as his staff wheeled in boxes of files to illustrate how a single attorney is already required to handle about 220 cases.

    Police downsized

    A motion by Supervisor Chris Daly, supported by Mirkarimi, cut positions from the police department’s upper management. The police lost one deputy chief and two commanders.

    The supervisors also redirected revenue from the hotel tax that was originally intended for the rehabilitation of the Moscone Convention Center. A small piece of the tax, about $1 million, will go toward public campaign financing. All told, as much as $2.3 million was set aside for campaigns, though about $1 million was placed in reserve.

    Jeremy Pollock, an aide to Mirkarimi, said that $2.3 million “is what we calculated as the baseline amount we need to put into the public financing fund, to be on pace to have enough money for the mayor’s race” in 2011, as well as the supervisorial races next year.

    Additional cuts to the General Fund will be felt at the city ballet, opera and American Conservatory Theater. Those cuts, about half a million dollars, were proposed by Mirkarimi and passed 6-5. That sum will back-fill children’s services, including a homeless shelter for youth.

    But the uncertainty of budgeting at a time when the state budget was also in question made it hard for the city to be sure its plans were final. At one point, Mirkarimi cautioned against assuming that the worst was over, instead saying, “we need to be on our toes to safeguard further” state or city budget downturns. He failed to create a $9.7 million reserve fund for the Asian Art Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.

    Before the vote on that measure, Supervisor John Avalos stressed that the board had “already really pushed the envelope” on negotiations with the mayor “quite close to the very edge.” Mirkarimi was adamant that some money be set aside: “I cannot vote for this budget if we do not have reserves,” he said.

    After Mirkarimi’s motion failed, Supervisor David Campos stepped in with a different reserve fund proposal, which passed 7-4. It placed $45 million from the salaries and benefits of the largest seven General Fund departments on “budget committee reserve” -- meaning city supervisors could dip into it in an emergency. The fund includes $11.9 million from police and $11.8 million from the Department of Public Health.

    Of tourists and geese

    In an effort to protect tourism and the convention center -- referred to by board President David Chiu as “the goose that lays the golden egg” -- Supervisor Bevan Dufty motioned to restore $800,000 to the convention facilities. Dufty said poorer facilities would mean fewer conventions and more empty hotel rooms.

    “It has a major ripple effect,” he said. “It’s fundamentally important to our economy.”

    After hours of tense debate and the passage of numerous amendments, the budget passed, with only Elsbernd and Carmen Chu dissenting.

    Avalos, chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, captured the sentiment of the afternoon when he summed up the months of work spent refining the budget: “It’s not ideal, it’s not perfect, but I think it’s the best that we can do.”

    Reform agenda flops

    The board voted down, 7-4, a proposal by Daly to reform the way budgets are implemented after they pass. His amendment would have allowed the board to force Mayor Gavin Newsom to spend so-called “add-back” money that comes from the board, and prevent unchecked mid-year budget cuts. The amendment offended Newsom, who called it the worst piece of legislation he had ever seen.

    In response, the board finally passed another measure, by Avalos, that requires the mayor to return to the board with a formal plan to strip funds from any agency. But Daly said the measure was toothless.

    Typically the administration releases its budget on June 1, proposing cuts. This year, the proposed budget was heavily criticized for deeply cutting social services.

    Over the next month, the board creates a restoration or “add-back” list of organizations they want to save. The supervisors were able to wrestle $43 million in add-backs to social services this year.

    In the past, the mayor has at times chosen to simply not spend money on these organizations, or to cut them in unchecked mid-year cuts. The board has no way of preventing the mayor from doing either.

    Allies fail to force mayor

    The self-identified progressive majority of the board has divided on how to address budgetary reform and this perceived imbalance of power. “They are splintering, not just on a question reforms, but on a question of strategy,” Mirkarimi said.

    Before the vote, Daly called his proposal “measured.”

    “I believe it works well with the existing restrictions of the charter,” he said, addressing his colleagues. “It is crafted to allow a majority of the board to have power. If you don’t like this, please propose something that you think is better.”

    The most notable “no” vote was Avalos, a former Daly staffer. Daly, who paced around the room and exchanged words with Avalos, was visibly angered by the vote.

    “They blindsided me,” Daly said.

    Although Avalos' earlier amendment, regarding how the city addresses potential losses of state and local revenues, passed, it requires the good faith of the mayor. Last year’s unilateral midyear cuts by the mayor left some supervisors skeptical about overcoming political differences.

    “Goodwill must be reciprocated” and previous failures demonstrated a lack of follow-through, Mirkarimi said.

    Daly then asked to be removed as chair of the Rules Committee and vice chair of the City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee. In a letter he passed around the chamber, Daly wrote, “I feel that my efforts to serve the people of San Francisco and progressive politics are better suited in my other official capacities.”

    Posted by Lila LaHood on 07/23/09
  • 7/16/09
  • Fire department OT pay increased amid citywide budget cuts

    By Kevin Stark
    The Public Press

    The San Francisco Fire Department is the only major city division whose overtime pay has grown in the last year -– straining the budget in a season when nearly every department has had to make painful sacrifices to help bridge a $438 million deficit.

    And as politicians tussled last month with firefighters and police over more than $80 million in proposed cuts, neither side in the debate focused on what all acknowledge as a worrisome development: the expensive and unrestrained growth of firefighters' extra pay for working longer hours.

    Research and graphic by Mary Catherine Plunkett/The Public Press

    The city's four other large departments -- police, sheriff, transportation and public health -- all managed to decrease overtime by an average of 21 percent in the last year. And they are slated for 39 percent in further cuts in the next year.

    But firefighters racked up $26.4  million in overtime in fiscal year 2008-09, an increase of 14 percent. For the coming year, firefighters foresee a cut in overtime of 18 percent.

    The discrepancy has been growing for half a decade. Overtime for firefighters has risen 169 percent in just the last five years. Most of that came in 2005 –- the year after voters endorsed a measure that required all 42 firehouses to stay open day and night. That year, overtime shot up 90 percent. Healthy raises through union contract two years later made firefighters' base pay climb even higher, a recipe for skyrocketing budgets.

    Photo by Ed Ritger/The Public Press

    This year, competing political interests have looked to cut public safety spending to spare deep cuts in health and social services.

    Some prominent critics say the Fire Department's outsized overtime pay is a perennial budget ploy by a politically connected city agency -- and its union -- to beef up workers' already high salaries.

    But Mayor Gavin Newsom has clearly thrown his support to the firefighters in this year's budget fight, appearing at a carefully staged union rally last month to oppose the effort by the Board of Supervisors to scale back public safety spending. In late June, the supervisors succeeded at cutting $16 million -- or 19 percent of the trim they had envisioned the previous week.

    Research and graphic by Mary Catherine Plunkett/The Public Press

    Filling 42 firehouses

    The growth of overtime pay has many causes. One is a hiring freeze dating back two years, leaving more work for fewer firefighters.

    Tom O'Connor, treasurer of San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798 -- the firefighters' union, said the department is understaffed. He blamed that on the mayor's office, which since 2007, has refused to authorize the department to hire new firefighters. Mindy Talmadge, a Fire Department spokeswoman, said the decision was made by the department.

    The department's annual report last year noted that the number of fire calls tripled in the last decade, while the number of on-duty firefighters decreased by seven through attrition and retirements.

    Photo by Ed Ritger/The Public Press

    "With each wave of retirements you are getting shorter and shorter in your on-duty personnel," O'Connor said.

    The department is understaffed by 168 firefighters, O'Connor said, leaving overworked staff susceptible to injury. He said that has made the city less safe and forces firefighters to work extra hours on weekends and holidays.

    "We get nothing but phone calls on Christmas Eve with people saying, 'I'm being forced to work,'" O'Connor said.

    The administration denied assertions that the department is understaffed. In an e-mail, Joe Arellano, communications director for the mayor's office of communications, wrote, "That's simply untrue."

    Noting that in 2004's Proposition F, voters mandated keeping all of San Francisco's 42 firehouses open, Arellano wrote: "It has been the practice of the SFFD to staff fire stations with a prudent use of overtime as a way to meet the Prop F requirements in the most efficient, cost-effective manner that ensures fire personnel safety. The Mayor's Office supports Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White in her efforts to strike this balance."

    Mandatory overtime

    The policy of mandatory overtime -- something the city had not practiced for 20 years -- has angered the fire union. The local's president, John Hanley, sent two scathing letters to Hayes-White in April requesting more firefighters.

    "The most important resources the department has to protect the citizens of San Francisco are fully-trained, front-line suppression firefighters," Hanley wrote. "What the department needs is new fully-trained firefighters …. Get the job done chief. This is your watch, no one else's."

    Photo by Ed Ritger/The Public Press.

    Talmadge said the city will soon start hiring new firefighters, who could join the department as early as the beginning of 2010.

    Another cause for growing overtime spending is the rapid inflation of firefighters' base pay, making overtime much more expensive. A 2007 labor contract gave the firefighters' union a 23 percent salary increase over four years.

    After the contract was negotiated, Hayes-White decided it would be more cost effective to require mandatory overtime for existing firefighters than to hire additional workers, said Talmadge. Hayes-White was traveling in early July and was not available for comment on the overtime issue.

    "It is cheaper because when you hire someone overtime, you aren't paying someone all the added benefits," Talmadge said. "You pay time and a half, but it is still a lot cheaper than paying all the health care."

    Growing political strife

    But some politicians question the wisdom of delaying needed hires. Critics also say rising overtime represents inefficiency and that the department's employees are generally overpaid.

    The department has 64 employees who earn more than $150,000 a year. This year, the most highly paid officers -- including the fire chief and battalion chiefs -- all offered to forego their raises as part of a Fire Department budgetary give-back.

    Yet those sacrifices are minimal compared with the size of the total department budget. The Fire Department's take, a proposed $279 million for next year, has increased 37 percent since 1998 -- with more than half of that money going to increased wages and employee benefits.

    In a report this March, the City Controller’s office found that SFFD spends $128 million more on fire suppression than similar California cities, such as Los Angeles and Sacramento.

    According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, San Francisco's firefighters work, on average, 5.3 hours longer per week than their counterparts in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and Chicago.

    But the controller's office report said they work four hours less than firefighters in other major cities in California.

    San Francisco is unique

    Photo by Mat Honan

    But the union said the study was skewed, and that San Francisco could not be compared with other cities in California because of its abundant wood structures, high population density and the medical service the department provides.

    Another factor in the cost: San Francisco also has four times the average number of stations than other California cities have -- in part because of its vulnerability to earthquakes.

    One major change from the last decade, which is still adding expense, was the reassignment of paramedic services to the Fire Department.

    "We absorbed the paramedic division from the Department of Public Health in 1997, so we have increased our work load by putting paramedics in every fire engine … and ambulances," O'Connor said. "That has doubled our call volume just in the last 10 years alone."

    Critics, like Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, argue that the Fire Department’s continued growth is evidence of the powerful firefighters' union's ability to muscle beneficial contract deals.

    In 2007, Supervisor John Avalos said, "the firefighters and the police officers were able to line up their contract with the mayor's election. So during that election year, the mayor gave away the kitchen sink with wages and benefits, a 7 percent increase yearly that the board didn't negotiate."

    O'Connor disagreed with Avalos' assessment, noting that the union has shown flexibility in subsequent years.

    "We were the first ones last year to give back," O'Connor said. "We gave back 3 percent. This year we gave back 4 percent."

    He said that comparisons with other cities only go so far because everything is more expensive here.

    "You have to look at the cost of living in the Bay Area and look at the salaries accordingly," he added. "You have to look at the delivery of services over the last decades. We have been more and more efficient in our delivery of services to the public."

    Reach the reporter at kstark[AT]


    Posted by Lila LaHood on 07/16/09
  • 7/16/09
  • Supes On: The budget — 'Our side allowed the mayor to get what they wanted,' says Mirkarimi

    District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi recently spoke with The Public Press about government waste and the need for budget process reform.

    While "delighted" that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was able to "extract" $45 million from Mayor Gavin Newsom's budget, Mirkarimi said he was still unhappy with the budget process as a whole. He said he would like to see the budget changed to a two-year cycle from the current one-year cycle or at least have the budget submitted before June 1.

    "Our side allowed the mayor ... to get what they wanted," Mirkarimi said. "But, in return, we got what we wanted in terms of a higher level of dollars."

    He said the add back process was "barbaric" for groups who do not have political power within the city government.

    He questioned the inefficiencies of the city government and called out San Francisco's public relations employees as an example of government waste. He said the city employs nearly 70 public relations workers -- five being with the mayor's office.

    "I feel like these are kind of well-paid coveted positions," he said. "No mayor has ever had this many ... not even Willie Brown who was a very high profile mayor."

    He also said the police department did not give much money back to help balance the city's budget.

    "I think it is a very top-heavy department," he said. "The idea for me is less in the stations, more on the streets, more in the neighborhoods especially neighborhoods that are chronically distressed.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 07/16/09
  • 7/15/09
  • City Budget Watchdog Mixer – It Takes a Community to Move Mountains

    On Monday a combination of reporters, editors, and Bay Area residents gathered at the SF Grotto to talk politics. For those curious - that looks something like this.

    Reporter Michael Winter and community member E.O. Stinson talking politics and media

    It was a fantastic event. At the end of the night w reached just above 60% of our goal to raise $5,000.We still have a long way to go - but we made some good inroads. If we reach our goal of 5k by the end of August, both Spot.Us and the Public Press agree to continue our coverage and see how far we can take this ship!

    Where is the money going? To the City Budget Watchdog series. You can see some of the work already produced on the Spot.Us pitch or at the Public Press' project page. And there is a LOT more to come. Even more exciting - this content is available to be republished by any interested parties - as long as credit is given to the writers, Public Press and Spot.Us.

    In essence - we're creating a small wire service for coverage of City Hall here in San Francisco.

    And it's a time when that reporting is sorely needed. Unfortunately my video of the night has been utterly corrupted. Otherwise you'd hear directly from Mike Stark about how, as the budget season started ramping up, he was one of only a few reporters actually attending city supervisor meetings. Or you'd hear the gumption of Hank Drew as he does video interviews with every city supervisor - something nobody else is doing to get them on record about their decision making process. Or you'd embrace the openness of Kevin Pistario who encouraged folks to leave comments to improve and enrich the teams reporting.

    Trust me - this was civic journalism taking shape.

    It was also a moment to pause for both the Public Press and Spot.Us to take a look at how far they've come. As Michael Stoll noted, we crawled out of the crib together. Through this project both are starting to get recognized as a media force to reckon with.

    And then of course there was the beer, wine, food, raffles and socializing. One thing I love about these in-person fundraisers is that it takes the "networking" out of social networking and just makes it fun and real. Spot.Us is about community. So whenever we can, we like to put faces to digital names.


    A hearty thanks goes to ALL who came out and showed some love.

    You keep us motivated, you give us the courage to step out of our space and leap for something greater than ourselves. There is no way we can truly repay the debt we owe. We hope that by ferociously covering City Hall and the budget cuts being enacted right now we can pay it forward to the larger Bay Area community. If media can move mountains, you are helping to start that avalanche.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 07/15/09
  • 7/12/09
  • Supes on: The budget -- 'Our side allowed the mayor to get what they wanted,' says Mirkarimi

     District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi recently spoke with The Public Press about government waste and the need for budget process reform.

    While "delighted" that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors was able to "extract" $45 million from Mayor Gavin Newsom's budget, Mirkarimi said he was still unhappy with the budget process as a whole. He said he would like to see the budget changed to a two-year cycle from the current one-year cycle or at least have the budget submitted before June 1.

    "Our side allowed the mayor ... to get what they wanted," Mirkarimi said. "But, in return, we got what we wanted in terms of a higher level of dollars."

    He said the add back process was "barbaric" for groups who do not have political power within the city government.

    He questioned the inefficiencies of the city government and called out San Francisco's public relations employees as an example of government waste. He said the city employs nearly 70 public relations workers -- five being with the Mayor's office.

    "I feel like these are kind of well-paid coveted positions," he said. "No mayor has ever had this many ... not even Willie Brown who was a very high profile mayor."

    He also said the police department did not give much money back to help balance the city's budget.

    "I think it is a very top-heavy department," he said. "The idea for me is less in the stations, more on the streets, more in the neighborhoods especially neighborhoods that are chronically distressed.


    Posted by Lila LaHood on 07/12/09
  • 7/9/09
  • The Watchdog Mixer: Help us investigate city budget cutbacks

    Give, drink and talk it up with our City Budget Watchdog team -- local journalists who need your support to continue a reporting project on municipal cutbacks, jointly sponsored by The Public Press and

    You'll have a chance talk to our journalists about the stories they've covered so far and hear about the reporting they plan to do in July and August. Read more here:

    When: Monday, July 13, from 6 to 8 p.m.
    Where: San Francisco Writers' Grotto, 490 2nd St., San Francisco, CA

    Beer, wine and snacks will be made available and we'll raffle off some gifts from local sponsors.

    Suggested donation: $15 in  advance through or $20 at the door.

    If you have  already donated to City Budget Watchdog through, please come to this  event as one of our honored guests.

    What is City Budget Watchdog?
    The Public Press is covering City Hall and San Francisco's budget crisis – because someone has to do it. is leading the campaign to raise money to pay a team of professional journalists to do this important work. We need to raise $5,000 to support this project. The good news is that we're more than halfway there! We've raised $2,710 so far, including a $1,000 matching grant from Ruth Ann Harnisch, president of the Harnisch Foundation in New York. Your contribution will help us reach our goal and support noncommercial, public-interest journalism in San Francisco.

    Thanks for your support and see you there!

    Posted by Spot. Us on 07/09/09
  • 7/8/09
  • Supes on: The budget - David Campos says the debate between public saftey and public health is a 'false choice'

     By Lizzy Tomei

    Video by Hank Drew
    The Public Press

    District 9 Supervisor David Campos Spoke about his approach to tackling the multimillion-dollar budget deficit. A former police commissioner, Campos is currently chair of the Board of Supervisors’ public safety committee and a member of the budget and finance committee.

    Campos said the framing of the policy debate over the current budget has emphasized a “false choice” between public safety and public healthd funding.

    Campos, a former civil rights attorney, is a strong proponent of violence prevention and park and recreation programs.

    He said new taxes and fees will be necessary in order to fund the $75 million in programs the supervisors hope to add back into the budget, and labor and business representatives will need to join the mayor and supervisors at the negotiating table prepared to compromise.

    In addition to cuts and new revenue, Campos said the budget process needs to be fundamentally reformed to avoid deficits and legislative gridlock in the future. “I think that there has to be a more balanced role between the legislative and the executive," he said. "I think right now it’s too one-sided and the legislative role is very limited.”

     He added that the supervisors, who are given a month to review the budget, should have at least twice as much time to make policy and funding decisions. “A lot of choices are being made very quickly,” he said.

    Posted by Lila LaHood on 07/08/09
  • 7/2/09
  • Late-night San Francisco budget plan adds back millions to health and welfare spending

     By Kevin Stark

    The Public Press

    San Francisco supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and John Avalos conferred before approval of a budget proposal that transferred millions of dollars to social-service organizations but included a narrow margin for likely state cutbacks this year. Photo by Kevin Stark/The Public Press.

    After a month of political jockeying, protests and two days of marathon budget negotiations, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget Committee approved a framework budget for the coming fiscal year.

    Yet it was a tentative victory for the progressive caucus, as there will doubtless be millions of dollars shifted around for weeks as officials horse-trade before the final budget is passed later in July. And this budget plan leaves looming questions about how state budget cuts will affect the city's fortunes, as well as the possibility of conflicts with the mayor months hence, when it comes time for him to spend the money.

    The progressives, led by budget chairman John Avalos, were able to find $44 million in the general fund to "add back" to community organizations. Topping the list of add-backs were substance-abuse and mental-health treatment organizations, including a full re-funding of Caduceus Outreach Services, a SOMA-based mental-health organization that would have had to close by Aug. 1.

    “These add-backs save lives,” said David Chiu, president of the board.

    Supervisor Chris Daly's emotions were on display for all to see throughout the proceedings, as he visibly teared up and his voice caught as he spoke about his favored programs. For Daly and his allies, it was a complicated dance because California had yet to balance its budget, and much of the city budget hinges on state matching funds.

    In order for California to balance its budget, it may need to slash funding to the same organizations that were re-funded Wednesday. But in a letter to the budget committee, Mayor Gavin Newsom promised $18 million from the general fund in preparation for state cuts, a relatively small number compared with expected shortfalls.

    “It’s nothing,” Daly yelled as the letter was read aloud in the chamber.

    Also uncertain was whether Newsom would resurrect his past practice of altering or ignoring the supervisors' add-back lists. About 40 percent of last year’s add-back funds have yet to be restored, city Controller Harvey Rose said.

    “Our work today stands very vulnerable before us,” Avalos said, later adding that he trusts the mayor's word when he said he wanted to work with the board.

    This sent Daly into a long, a tearful rebuke of Avalos: “I know you better than the comments you previously made. I considered you my best friend.” The two supervisors exchanged a few angry words before Avalos left the chamber to grab two bottles of champagne.

    The exchange illuminates a rift that may be growing within the progressive coalition -- with veteran board members like Daly growing weary of the imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches of city government, and new members such as Avalos and David Campos, who are willing to collaborate.

    “This board and this mayor, at the end of the day, are willing to work together,” Campos said.

    Posted by Lila LaHood on 07/02/09
  • 7/2/09
  • Conflicting interests: City unions wage lobbying war to stem cuts

     By Michael Pistorio

    The Public Press

    Photo by Mikey Parrata

    San Francisco’s budget fight has swung into high gear, with two heavy weights – public safety and health – sparring over money and launching intensive campaigns to sway public and supervisorial opinion any way they can.

    While lobbying is typically connoted with big business using money and power to influence legislation – think tobacco, auto and pharmaceutical industries – this season’s coalitions of interest groups include police officers, healthcare workers, firefighters and city attorneys, and all are hitting the streets and City Hall corridors hard to get their message out.

    The stakes couldn’t be much higher: The city is grappling with an estimated $438 million deficit with no fresh revenue measures on the horizon. Advocates for police and fire services have squared off against social service providers, with each claiming that cuts will have disastrous and immediate consequences. With a month to go until the budget must be signed, a majority of the supervisors are going head-to-head with Mayor Newsom over where and how to spread the pain.

    Photo by Steven Damron

    From fire fighters facing temporary station closures (known as brownouts), to nurses threatened with staff reassignments, city workers and unions have been angling to put a human face on the looming department cuts. And with 1,600 staff layoffs up for grabs, public safety and social service agencies have been pitted against each other to protect their turf.

    “Every year it’s a dog and pony show,” said James Keys, health program director for the Senior Action Network, an umbrella group of senior organizations in San Francisco. “It takes seniors, the poor and people who work, to ask, to beg, that these cuts don’t occur.”

    In early June, 600 seniors took to City Hall to oppose cuts that would decrease in-home support services and other programs run by the Coalition of Agencies Serving the Elderly, or CASE.

    “It’s gotten absolutely worse for seniors every year,” said Keys, who is active in CASE. “[It’s] too expensive for the elderly to live in San Francisco anymore.

    Meanwhile, the San Francisco Firefighters Union Local 798 has been waging  “an aggressive and offensive strategy to keep firehouses open and fully staffed,” writes the International Association of Fire Fighters, since the beginning of the year in preparation for a budget fight. They have a lot to lose – the Board of Supervisors has threatened to slash $24 million from their budget when they vote on the official budget this month. 

    In the first three months of 2009, the union spent $75,858.81 to influence political action – more than any other registered lobbying group, according to the city’s ethics commission. Local 798 is the only union in San Francisco to voluntarily register as a lobbyist; unions are currently not required to do so.

    Money spent in the second quarter will not be reported until the middle of this month. But part of the unions reported spending includes payment for political consultant Eric Jaye, founder of the consulting firm Storefront Political Media and consultant for Newsom’s bid for governor.

    Local 798’s media campaign has included placing ads on – the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site – and in English, Spanish and Chinese language neighborhood papers. Posting on Facebook and more low-tech moves, like driving trucks outfitted with loudspeakers through progressive districts, also has been part of the fire fighters’ campaign.

    “Don’t let politics get in the way of our neighborhood safety,” reads one ad that encourages residents to join its 6,000-member strong Facebook page.

    The labor group representing healthcare workers, Service Employees International Union – SEIU – Local 1021 has staged protests against Newsom’s proposed cuts and packed board meetings with its supporters. The group’s 11,000 San Francisco members, including 1,800 in human services and 3,500 in the department of public health, have been rallying against service cuts for the last year and a half.

    SEIU members protest at City Hall. Photo by Robert B. Livingston

    The hours of public comment mobilized by the service union may be paying off.  On Thursday, the Supervisors’ Budget Committee backed recommendations from the board’s Budget Analyst to cut $6 million from the fire department and nearly $4 million from the police department. The cuts, however, were only a fourth of what supervisors had threatened to make in early June.

    A majority on the Board of Supervisors – not quite a veto-proof bloc – is set on making budget cuts more “equitable” in the face of Newsom’s proposed $169 million cuts to health and human services and may take out the scalpel for deeper pain when they vote on the full budget this month. The fire fighters aren’t taking any chances and pledge to continue their pressure tactics.

    “I think they (local 798) have a role to play and are doing what a union has to do,” San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said. “If there’s $6 million in reductions” the fire department will continue “working with the legislature” to exhaust all options before implementing brownouts, she added.

    Board President David Chiu has met twice with John Hanley, president of the local fire fighters union, since the budget process began.

    “Obviously, we have different perspectives on how the budget should be laid out,” Chiu said. “It was a productive meeting, but we have a ways to go.”
    Hanley and the head of the police officer union led a fiery rally in front of City Hall June 16 to attack a number of supervisors who had called for public safety cuts. Since then, the public safety groups have stepped up their orchestrated campaign to discredit supervisors who called for trimming fire and police spending in order to reduce deep cuts to public health programs. One tactic: driving trucks through some supervisors’ districts outfitted with loudspeakers and demanding they be recalled.

    District 5 Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, one of the budget and finance committee members whose district has been visited by the fire department’s loudspeaker ride-throughs, said, “It’s all smoke and mirrors.”

    Reach the reporter at mpistorio[AT]

    Posted by Lila LaHood on 07/02/09
  • 6/30/09
  • Supes on: The budget — Cutbacks are fiscal 'armageddon,' Daly says

     By Hank Drew

    San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly fighting for a 'people's budget'

    District 6 Supervisor Chris Daly sat down with the Public Press to discuss the budget crisis, his legislative priorities, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s political agenda and the circumstances surrounding this year's budget.

    A supervisor for eight years, Daly has aligned himself with public health in fighting for social service organizations in this summer’s budget battle. He is a harsh critic of Newsom and argues that the mayor’s political allegiances have trumped the needs of the city.


    Posted by Lila LaHood on 06/30/09
  • 6/25/09
  • KALW's Crosscurrents Radio talks to City Budget Watchdog

    Holly Kernan, news director at San Francisco's KALW, interviewed Kevin Stark, one of our City Budget Watchdog reporters, for Crosscurrents on June 22.

    Here's a description from "The city is trying to find ways to close a nearly half billion dollar deficit, which means cuts. After the board of supervisors reworked Mayor Newsom's proposed budget last week, the debate seems to be centered on funding public safety or funding public health programs. Reporter Kevin Stark of the Public Press has been following the city’s budget blues and joins us now to help us sort out the budget quandary."

    And here's a link to the segment:

    Posted by Lila LaHood on 06/25/09
  • 6/23/09
  • Mayor restores funding for Tenderloin drop-in center

    By Kevin Stark 

    The Public Press 

    In a reprieve for San Francisco mental health services, Mayor Gavin Newsom restored funding to the decades-old Tenderloin Self Help Center, a drop-in counseling and service provider, according to Jackie Jenks, executive director of the parent organization, Central City Hospitality House. 

    The center, which served 13,500 people last year, was slated to lose $650,000 from a city budget cut that would have closed the organization by Aug. 1, just as a troubled economy was almost doubling the number of daily visitors to the center.

    "People are elated," Jenks said, calling the change "a wise decision."

    "This is a critical service for the tenderloin community," she said.

    Even with this restoration, she said, budget cuts threaten other social service providers, and the center might not have the capacity to serve the clients who need help.

    Tenderloin Self Help provides counseling and housing support to homeless and the poor, and has been central to this summer's budget policy debate. Newsom proposed cutting $128 million in city funding to public health -- $13.5 million from substance abuse services and $11 million from mental health services -- a move that was met with anger from the Board of Supervisors and two tense rallies at which hundreds of public health advocates, including employees and clients of the center, gathered at City Hall.

    The mayor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.

    Last week, the board voted to recommend an interim budget for July that would transfer $82 million in funding from public safety to public health. Newsom, who is running for governor in the fall, has appeared in public with police and fire unions, and has been severely critical of the move saying it will put the city in danger. 

    After the Department of Public Health prioritized the center, the mayor used a procedural device known as a technical adjustment to restore its funding, Jenks said. Four other mental health and substance abuse organizations also had funding restored through technical adjustments.

    Posted by Lila LaHood on 06/23/09
  • 6/17/09
  • Vote moves $82 million from public safety to public health

     By Kevin Stark 

    The Public Press

    Mayor Gavin Newsom.
    Photo by brainchildvn

    In a day of high tensions, as hundreds of San Francisco firefighters and public health activists held loud, competing rallies outside City Hall, the Board of Supervisors Tuesday sent a message to Mayor Gavin Newsom: Let's rework the budget priorities together.While the supervisors insisted on passing a modified interim budget that transfers $82 million in funding from public safety agencies to public health programs, a move that has angered Newsom, they also changed the tone of their rhetoric, saying they are ready to work in collaboration with the mayor.

    The central policy debate has been this: the more progressive-identified supervisors, including John Avalos, Chris Daly and Ross Mirkarimi, were angered by Newsom’s June 1 budget proposal that deeply cut social services yet grew policing and firefighting. They argue that the cuts will destroy San Francisco's social safety net.

    The board's attempt to take money from public safety has frustrated the mayor, who is beginning a gubernatorial campaign while trying to plug a $438 million city deficit. Speaking to the fire union outside City Hall, Newsom said the supervisors acted without concern for his office and criticized them for not collaborating.

    Avalos said that the board amended the budget to send a message.

    "Going forward does not mean we will be cutting hundreds of jobs -- this interim budget lasts for a month," Avalos said. "We are really just making a statement about how we need a better way of balancing our budget."

    The vote leaves the mayor in a tricky position.

    "He actually can't veto this," Mirkarimi said. "It lays the groundwork for some real uneasiness procedurally speaking." He quickly added that he is ready to work with the mayor.

    "Ultimately speaking we should be peacemaking,” Mirkarimi said. “We should see what he might put on the table."

    The supervisors are now poised for a reaction from Newsom.

    "I had a meeting with the mayor yesterday, and we made progress," Avalos said. "We said we are going to work together, but we haven't come up with real specifics yet."

    San Francisco Supervisor John AvalosPhoto by Hank Drew/The Public Press.

    The next step is for the supervisors to hear each general fund committee one by one and decide which organizations should receive "add back" funds -- money held in reserve for last-minute adjustments in the month of July before the final budget is set in stone.

    Substance abuse and mental health services are high on the list of organizations for restorations, Avalos said.

    Mitch Katz, director of the Department of Public Health, said a reconciliation between competing interests this month is crucial. "I would like the mayor and the board to work out how the city continues functioning after July 1," he said.

    There were raucous crowds outside City Hall all afternoon as public health advocates and hundreds of firefighters held competing rallies across the street from each other. Once inside, the two sides shouted at each other. Daly and Avalos appeared at the front of the crowd and both were booed by the firefighters.

    Public comment during the supervisors' meeting lasted three hours. Many speakers expressed frustration at the framing of the debate, arguing that public health and public safety were intertwined.

    "We are not at odds with mental health, and I think realistically if they cut their budget down to the bone, we would have more cases," said Gabriel Shen, a firefighter. "It would be a disservice to us. There has to be a way to bridge the gap."

    Michael Pistorio contributed to this story. Reach the reporter at kstark [AT]

    Posted by Lila LaHood on 06/17/09
  • 6/12/09
  • Supervisors urge shift of $82 million from cops and fire to health

     By Michael Pistorio and Kevin Stark

    The Public Press

    Public Defender Jeff Adachi was among the handful of politicians protesting the mayor's proposed cuts Wednesday. Photo by Hank Drew/The Public Press. [See video from the protest]

    In a day of protest inside and outside City Hall, the Board of Supervisors' Budget and Finance Committee shoved a wrench in Mayor Gavin Newsom's interim budget Wednesday, while nearly 1,000 rallied outside for more equitable cuts to save health services.

    The committee approved shifting $82 million from the mayor's interim public safety budget to the San Francisco Department of Public Health and other city departments getting cut by Newsom's budget ax.

    "I truly do not believe this budget reflects the priorities of this city," Board President David Chiu said.

    District 11 Supervisor John Avalos, the committee chair, proposed moving $42 million from police, $17 million from the sheriff and $23 million from firefighters to departments facing cuts. Avalos called his proposal “an equitable approach that we don’t already have. I don‘t see how we can get the mayor involved without this amendment.”

    The amendment goes to the full board next week for a final vote. The interim budget helps the city pay its bills until approval of the final 2009-2010 budget.

    The committee's budget salvo challenges the mayor's plan to take $169 million from the Department of Public Health to help close the city's $438 million budget deficit while leaving the police, sheriff and fire departments intact.

    It also sets up a potential veto battle with Newsom: Supervisor Bevan Dufty, a consistent Newsom supporter, could be a key swing vote preventing a veto-proof majority from approving the proposal. 
    Dufty opposed the measure, saying he would not “vote for something that is going to be used to send a message" to the mayor. On a more conciliatory note he added that his vote was not a rejection of the other board members' concerns.

    Supervisor Carmen Chu, who also voted against the resolution, asked for patience from her colleagues: “I think this is a budget we haven’t seen before. We’re going to have to have collaboration. I think the approach is not quite right.”

    Outside, at a protest on the steps of City Hall, Supervisor Chris Daly said Newsom was “gutting the social safety net to pump up law enforcement." His speech was part of a day of action organized by Budget Justice, a coalition of community organizations affected by cuts.

    Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness and a protest organizer, said community groups want a fair budget that “shares the pain” with equitable cuts across the board. “San Francisco’s budget should protect economically and politically vulnerable citizens, not cut their services for political expediency,” Friedenbach said.

    Budget Justice organized the protest to oppose cuts to health and human services, specifically $22.8 million being cut from community groups that serve people with mentally illnesses or addictions -- cuts that will close drop-in centers and reduce the number of mental health counselors.


    To watch a video of the rally filmed by Hank Drew and edited by Clare Roberts, please click here: [See video from the protest]


    Posted by Lila LaHood on 06/12/09
  • 6/12/09
  • SF budget cuts target behavioral health

     By Kevin Stark and Lizzy Tomei

    The Public Press

    Michael DeCarlo Wright is a Tenderloin Self Help Center cleint who could lose job search and other services he has used for the past seven years. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    Hundreds of San Francisco's most vulnerable people -- the mentally ill, homeless, and seniors among them -- will be pushed out of the social services safety net and even further into the margins if proposed cuts to the Department of Public Health go through.

    San Francisco is facing one of the largest budget deficits in recent memory, and city politicians are scrambling to balance the budget with the least amount of pain. Mayor Gavin Newsom has proposed slashing more than $169 million from the health department's share of city general funds as city leaders try to bridge a $438 million deficit this month. 

    Behavioral health services -- including counseling, mental health treatment and addiction and vocational services -- would be some of the hardest hit under this plan.

    Until a final draft of the budget is approved, it is impossible to say exactly how many will be affected by the proposed cuts. The health department says that at least 1,500 uninsured people would lose access to behavioral health services if the mayor's budget is approved. That number could grow much larger if cuts force the closure of centers that see hundreds of needy people every day.

    "The cuts we are looking at now are more devastating than San Francisco has ever seen," said Jackie Jenks, executive director of Central City Hospitality House, which is slated to lose funding under the proposal. "They are really dismantling a system that has been built up over 30 to 40 years."

    San Francisco's public health system "has taken decades to put together," said Steven Tierney, a city health commissioner and director of the Community Mental Health Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies. "The reality is that we are now having to dismantle that system because of the economy."

    If the Board of Supervisors has its way, however, the health department will be spared some of the proposed cuts, with more money instead coming out of public safety budgets, including police and fire services. 

    City and health department officials say that cutbacks are unavoidable and necessary in order to keep the city's core services intact. As the supervisors and the mayor's office wrangle over budget proposals, few look forward to the day the cuts are finalized.

    "Nonprofits are going to close over this," said Jim Illig, president of the San Francisco Health Commission, which reviewed the health department’s budget proposal. "The Health Commission does not want to be cutting these programs. But our job is to help the mayor present a balanced budget."

    If the cuts are approved, some nonprofits could shut down as early as Aug. 1. The Tenderloin Self Help Center, which provides 2,500 people with drop-in substance abuse counseling and job and housing assistance, is one of them. The decades-old center would lose $652,000 under the proposed budget -- leaving it without enough funding to keep its doors open. 

    Tenderloin Self Help Center from Monica Jensen on Vimeo.

    After he fell ill and lost his job seven years ago, Porter Davis ended up on the street. Lacking health insurance or disability benefits, Davis turned to Tenderloin Self Help.

    "I was on welfare and struggling just to find a place to stay and to be able to continue access the health care system," Davis said. 

    If the Tenderloin center closes, other drop-in programs might not be able to handle the increased caseload. Last year, Tenderloin Self Help saw 13,500 people, and visits spiked in the last six months as the economy worsened.

    "We used to see about 200 to 300 people a day, and now we see 300 to 400 people a day," said Jackie Jenks, executive director of Central City Hospitality House, the parent organization for the Tenderloin Self Help Center.

    Tenderloin Self Help is a low-threshold provider, meaning it does not record personal information about its clients. While this allows the organization to service a community of chronically homeless people skeptical of traditional mental health organizations, it also disqualifies the center from receiving Medi-Cal funding, leaving it more vulnerable to budget cuts.

    Jenks said the services her center provides should be considered emergency support -- one of the core services the Department of Public Health sets out to preserve.

    "I don’t know how one could not categorize what we are doing every single day as emergency services," Jenks said. "We have people come in who are in severe mental health crisis, who are overdosing on drugs."

    Barbara Bosely, 71, said she'd do anything to keep the Southeast Mission Geriatric Services in its current location. She had just heard about the proposed relocation to OMI on Ocean Avenue. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    Kavoos Bassiri, CEO of Richmond Area Multi-Services, Inc., a nonprofit health agency that specializes in serving Asian and Russian communities, worries that the budget process is determining health department priorities. "I am concerned that so much of the cuts are from behavioral health services," he said. "I think there are proportionally higher cuts to behavioral health services."

    Bob Cabaj, director of Community Behavioral Health Services at the Department of Public Health, said behavioral health services currently receive a disproportionately high amount of money from the city’s general fund. A heavy reliance on general funds means that these services suffer more during a fiscal crisis.

    "We recognize that there will be a service reduction, but community behavioral health services is going to work closely with primary care to address more of the needs at primary clinics," Cabaj wrote in an e-mail.

    The Department of Public Health followed principles developed by the health commission to design recent budget proposals. "The department’s priorities in wanting to preserve the safety net services from San Francisco General Hospital, Laguna Honda Hospital and the medical homes in our community clinics left the department with very narrow choices,"  Cabaj wrote.

    To optimize available funds, the health department wants to integrate behavioral health services with primary care -- where patients see one physician for all their health needs -- and to preserve core services including disease control, emergency services and hospitalization.

    But even among behavioral health programs spared devastating funding cuts, there could be major changes. Southeast Mission Geriatric Services is one of four centers in the city that specializes in behavioral health care for older adults. Housed in a small, inconspicuous building in the outer Mission, the 25-year-old center serves more than 270 clients 60 and older, according to a staff-produced fact sheet. (Community Behavioral Health Services, however, lists that number as 187.) Just three social workers staff the clinic on a regular basis.

    Under the latest budget proposal, the center's Mission Street location will be closed, and its program and staff will relocate to the OMI Adult Behavioral Health clinic on Ocean Avenue. Southeast Mission Geriatric's caseload over the past two years has "increased to a high, unmanageable level" due to staffing reductions to address budget shortfalls, Cabaj wrote.

    However, the program at Southeast Mission Geriatric is better off than many, Cabaj said, as it will not suffer cuts, but merely a relocation. Shuttering the Mission Street clinic and relocating most of its staff to OMI will bolster the capacity of the program, Cabaj said, adding that the new location will be more convenient for clients to get to -- a claim clinic staff and clients dispute.

    Southeast Mission Geriatric Center from Monica Jensen on Vimeo.

    Several Southeast Mission Geriatric clients said in interviews that location matters, and that some won't be able to get to OMI to seek help.

    "I would take three buses to get there," said Meshá Mongé-Irizarry, 61, a diabetic client who sometimes uses a cane to walk. "I'm not gonna make it."

    Clients also worry about lack of privacy at OMI, a larger facility that sees people of various ages.

    Lidiette Ayala, 72, said that her mental illness would make relocation difficult. "If they close the center and move I would have a problem, because I have agoraphobia," said Ayala, who has been coming to the center for nearly a decade and also struggles with depression.

    "Change is trauma," and trauma would make her depression worse, said Kay Livingston, 62, another client.

    "I don't want to go backward, I want to go forward," she said. "They always cut psychiatric services, and seniors."

    "How much healing would I get emotionally when I'm putting myself through four hours of bus transportation that is hurting my physical health?" said Meshá Mongé-Irizarry, when asked about the relocation of Southeast Mission Geriatric Services proposed in the latest budget. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    Barbara Bosley, 71, has used the Southeast Mission Geriatric center for 15 years. She said she feels at home at the Mission Street clinic, which is small, quiet and conveniently located. "It's really helped me a lot. I'd be in a hospital if I didn't have it. I need it," said Bosley, whose services are covered by Medi-Cal.

    Southeast Mission Geriatric staff declined to be interviewed for this story. But at a May 29 community meeting with District 11 Supervisor John Avalos, Francisca Oroteza, a psychiatric social worker at Southeast Mission Geriatric, voiced her feelings bluntly.

    "I prevent people from killing themselves, that’s my job," Oroteza said. "And I need the Department of Aging and the Board of Supervisors and the people creating the budget to look at other places they can cut."


    For video profiles of the Tenderloin Self Help Center and the Southeast Mission Geriatric Center by photographer and videographer Monica Jensen, please click here: Tenderloin Self Help Center and Southeast Mission Geriatric Center 

    Or go to



    Posted by Lila LaHood on 06/12/09
  • 6/12/09
  • The City Survey measures San Franciscans' opinions about public services

    This year's survey found that more San Franciscans continue to give local government a favorable grade of "A" or "B" on overall services- 43%, up from 40 % in 2007 and 36% in 2005. The overall report card for local government remained at "C+" but ratings improved across the board for individual service areas, including public transportation, streets and sidewalks, safety and parks and recreation. Here's a link to download the 2009 City Survey.

    From the site: "The City Survey measures San Franciscans' opinions about public services they experience every day- streets, parks, Muni, libraries, public safety, and schools -and other characteristics of the City's quality of life, such as access to computers and the Internet."

    Thought you might find this data useful.


    Posted by Kara Andrade on 06/12/09
  • 6/9/09
  • Perfect storm of bad economic news led to San Francisco's budget scramble

    By Kristina Shevory
    The Public Press

    Until last summer, the recession was something that happened somewhere else. The credit crunch was slow in reaching San Francisco because it was insulated from the subprime crisis unfolding across the country.

    But now the recession has hammered the city’s budget and led to the largest shortfall in more than two decades. With a $438 million deficit, the city is scrambling to make up the difference -- slashing 1,600 jobs, auctioning taxi medallions, slapping smokers with taxes to clean up cigarette butts.

    Nearly every source of money has taken a hit this year:

    • The credit crunch has decimated commercial real estate investors and developers, and is expected to shave property transfer tax revenues by 52 percent this fiscal year.
    • Tourists, many of whom were Europeans lured by a cheap dollar, have stopped coming, and the city’s hotel tax shows it. Hotel room tax revenue is projected to decline by 38 percent. Tourists were able to keep San Francisco shielded from much of the subprime mess unfolding across the rest of California, but it only lasted through last summer. This fiscal year, sales tax revenues are expected to plunge almost 18 percent.
    • Job losses and fewer new businesses have also trimmed the budget to a tune of $22.7 million. Business tax revenue, which comes from payroll and business license registration fees, is projected to dip by almost 6 percent.

    Sacramento won’t be any help this year. The state must wrangle $24 billion in cuts to keep California on life support, and is hungrily eyeing cities for more money. This year, San Francisco will likely see its cut from state sales tax and vehicle license fees drop by more than 14 percent. Other state funding is expected to fall by 9.5 percent.

    There could be further bad news. State politicians are now debating whether to tap $2 billion in property tax revenues from cities and counties across California. If the state Legislature approves the move, San Francisco could stand to lose an additional $91 million. And there could be more pain to come if the state trims other programs, like CalWORKS and Medi-Cal, that could result in over $200 million in losses. (The current city budget, however, does not reflect this cut since it has yet to be approved. The city’s fiscal year starts July 1 and runs until June 30, 2010.)

    There is some good news amid the gloom. Federal money, charges for city services and an increase in property tax revenue are expected to help offset some of the hits the city’s general spending fund will take this year. Federal aid, much of it for health and human services, will increase a little over 14 percent. Thanks to a backlog in assessments, property tax revenue is projected to climb by about 4 percent.

    San Francisco’s pain won’t end anytime soon. A pickup in the economy isn’t projected until the middle of next year, and most economists expect it won’t bring a large infusion of jobs or spending. It could actually get even worse: The deficit is expected to hit $615 million for the 2010 fiscal year, and $746 million the following year. 2009 could very well be remembered as the start of a more austere era.


    Posted by Spot. Us on 06/09/09
  • 6/9/09
  • The San Francisco budget: a user's guide

    By Christopher Cook
    The Public Press

    Welcome to San Francisco’s lean and mean 2009 budget season. It’s going to be a brawl.

    As Mayor Gavin Newsom seeks to eliminate a $438 million deficit, mainly through cuts to city staff and services, the board of supervisors and numerous opposition groups will be haggling over the brutal details through July 1.

    While much of the current debate centers on how to spread the pain, some groups and supervisors are calling for new revenue measures to avoid decimating city services.

    There is also a running debate about whether the budget disproportionately hurts the poor while increasing funds for fire and police services. In the coming months the Public Press will be keeping a close eye on the impact of the budget's fine print -- and promoting dialogue and inquiry into how we got into this mess. We'll also be examining new policy approaches that might help us out of it.

    Below you’ll find our quick-and-dirty user's guide to the budget process, including snapshots of the pivotal budget players, a look at some of the leading budget opposition groups and interactive charts comparing this year's proposed budget allocations with those of previous years. We invite your tips and feedback. Send comments to citybudgetblues [AT]

    And if you'd like to donate to this series through our fundraising partner,, visit our project page. Every bit helps!


    Meet the Key Players

    As the budget passes from Newsom's staff to the supervisors, let's pause a moment to meet some of the key players in the budget setting process.

    Nani Coloretti: Budget Director

    Newsom's lead budget official, Coloretti told the Chronicle that trimming the budget is "like trying to lose that last 15 pounds of weight. We're gaining weight right now, and getting farther from our goal." Before her current role, Coloretti served as Newsom's deputy policy director, then policy director, after first serving as director of budget & policy for the city's Department of Children, Youth and Families. Prior to her city work, she was employed as an economics consultant, public policy practice group coordinator at Law and Economics Consulting Group. At the mayor's budget presentation last week, Newsom enthused, "If anyone deserves a round of applause, it's Nani Coloretti," according to SF Appeal.

    Coloretti’s cast of budget helpers includes:
    Gigi Whitley, Deputy Budget Director
    Greg Wagner, Deputy Budget Director
    Kate Howard, Senior Fiscal and Policy Analyst
    Rebekah Krell, Senior Fiscal and Policy Analyst
    Meghan Wallace, Fiscal and Policy Analyst
    Manish Goyal, Fiscal and Policy Analyst
    Jonathan Lyens, Fiscal and Policy Assistant


    The budget proposal is online. The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee will be doing the heavy lifting to steer the board's budget revisions to the mayor. Below are snapshots of the key players:

    John Avalos, the committee chair, represents District 11, which includes Excelsior, Ingleside, Visitacion Valley and other neighborhoods. While strongly opposing cuts to social services, Avalos has been pushing for revenue measures to help stem the budget bleeding.

    Avalos told the Fog City Journal he'd like employees on the high end of the salary scale to "give back more" than those on the lower end of the salary scale. "If you're making over $150,000 a year, that's a great salary to have, even in San Francisco."

    At a February press conference Avalos proposed a special election to enact a gross receipts tax, saying, "If these corporations pay their fair share, we can generate millions that will go towards keeping health clinics, youth and senior services, and jobs safe for San Franciscans. In these tough fiscal times, we need to give ourselves as many tools and options to craft a balanced budget that maintains the public safety net and protects San Francisco seniors and families."
    (415) 554-6975 Voice
    (415) 554-6979 - Fax

    Ross Mirkarimi, the Green Party’s top local official, represents District 5, including the Haight, Panhandle and other neighborhoods. He has been a persistent critic of the mayor, and has pressed for alternative approaches to spread the budget-cutting pain.

    In an interview with the Fog City Journal about prioritizing wage cuts over staffing cuts, Mirkarimi said, "It's a wise idea. It asserts a level of compassion and collaboration that I don't think exists now. But in desperate times, more than ever, this would be an excellent time for leadership, particularly in Room 200, the mayor, to help amass this level of consciousness and what it means to alleviate our significant problem."

    (415) 554-7630 - Voice
    (415) 554-7634 - Fax

    Carmen Chu was appointed as the District 4 supervisor in September 2007 by Newsom and represents the Sunset/Parkside area. Prior to joining the Board, Chu spent three years as a Newsom protégé in the Mayor’s Office of Public Policy and Finance. Before that she was a private sector consultant with Public Financial Management, Inc., a firm that assists municipalities manage debt and finance public-works projects.

    Chu has consistently opposed tax-based revenue enhancement and hews to the idea that the city should tighten its belt first. In January, long before the mayor issued his proposed cuts, she told ABC Channel 7, "We need to take a look at any efficiency we can gain, if there are any areas we can cut."

    (415) 554-7460 - Voice
    (415) 554-7432 - Fax

    David Campos represents District 9, the Mission, Bernal Heights and Portola neighborhoods.

    Campos has stressed the need to ameliorate budget cut pain, speaking out against Muni cuts and fare hikes. He also hopes that city workers will support givebacks rather than staff reductions, telling Fog City Journal, "A lot of people would rather see their salary cut to avoid a co-worker being laid off."

    At the same time he is not afraid of antagonizing some of the city unions, telling the Fog City Journal, "there are some people in bargaining units (unions) that are overpaid. I think that you have to have some equity in how that's allocated."

    (415) 554-5144 - Voice

    (415) 554-6255 - Fax


    Moderate Supervisor Bevan Dufty represents the Castro and surrounding neighborhoods. He has been a fairly reliable pro-Newsom vote, but has made some surprisingly prickly comments about the budget process.

    When asked about across-the-board wage cuts, Dufty was quoted saying, "It's the mayor that has to negotiate certain things. It's clear that Mayor Brown would have taken the bull by the horns, so to speak, and sat people down and at the table and personally cut an agreement."

    Dufty also told the Fog City Journal the budget process has "been challenging. Certainly a relationship is a two way street and I think the mayor and SEIU have not had a good relationship for some time, that it's been my intent to have a good relationship with SEIU and I have worked at it, but I don't have the responsibility that the mayor does in terms of negotiating."

    (415) 554-6968 - Voice
    (415) 554-6909 - Fax


    Meet the Opposition:

    The details of Newsom's proposed $6.6 billion budget are being reviewed by the Board of Supervisors, and the city's unions, community groups, department heads and others are all reeling from the $438.1 million in cuts. But those cuts are not final. The final budget is due July 1, and even then the supervisors can add back funding to different organizations. The next month and a half will see a lot of scratching and clawing at City Hall as organizations struggle to preserve funding. Below are snapshots of a few key members of the budget opposition.

    Photo from

    Jennifer Friedenbach is the director of the Coalition on Homelessness and has a history of tangling with Newsom. When he cut funding to homeless groups last year, she held a rally of 50 outside of his home. Newsom had her removed from his June 1 budget press conference for not being a credentialed member of the press (she was reporting for Street Sheet, according to Beyond Chron). Expect more of the same this year, as Newsom’s budget slices $13.5 million from substance abuse services and another $9.3 from organizations serving the mentally ill.

    Friedenbach will be organizing and protesting this summer in a fight for add-back funds. She has organized a June 10 march from Hallidie Plaza to City Hall called "Real Deal or No Deal." The event is at 3 p.m. and will include other activists fighting for mental health, substance abuse and homeless advocacy.

    468 Turk St (Calendar of events
    Web site:
    Blog of events:
    Event PDF:

    Also organizing "Real Deal or No Deal," is Jackie Jenks, executive director of Central City Hospitality House, an organization that provides counseling and housing services to San Francisco's poor community. The 23-year-old Tenderloin Self Help Center received a cut of $651,991 in Newsom's budget and will close Aug. 1. Jenks told The Public Press, “We are very concerned that there doesn't seem to be a plan for what will happen when all the services that are proposed to be cut are actually cut."

    Web site:

    The powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 covers more than 11,000 city workers, including janitors, security guards and health care workers. Under pressure from Newsom, who threatened to lay off 1,000 employees, on June 4 the union voted overwhelmingly (86.4 percent) to accept wage concessions that will save $16 million in the city's general fund.

    But the union has been a vocal opponent of Newsom's cuts. At a protest this March, Damita Davis-Howard (pictured above) said the cuts are counter to "What this city ought to be -- a caring city, caring for the people who live in this city and caring for people who serve this city. People are losing their houses, people are losing their savings, their retirement, and it's the services in San Francisco that help those people in crisis." (calendar of events). (Web site)
    Photo courtesy of SF360

    Public Defender Jeff Adachi has been extremely public in his fight to preserve his office's budget. In January, he issued a feisty letter to the mayor and Board of Supervisors requesting $50,000 for two part-time paralegals. He said that without extra staff, his office could not handle every homicide and major felony case in need of a public defender, and he would begin hiring out private lawyers for $120 an hour (costing the city $1 million a year).

    His request was denied. Adachi also printed 5,000 postcards addressed to the mayor’s office, saying "even in these difficult economic times, San Francisco cannot afford to place equal access to justice on the financial chopping block." Adachi's efforts, so far, have been to no avail: His office is facing a proposed cut of $1.9 million, or about 10 lawyers.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 06/09/09
  • 6/9/09
  • Homeless counseling group first on Health Dept. chopping block

    By Kevin Stark
    The Public Press

    Provocative and sometimes therapeutic images by clients of Caduceus Outreach Services adorn the walls of the SOMA drop-in center, which faces closure as soon as next month. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    Caduceus Outreach Services could close its doors as early as July 1 due to the crippling budget deficit facing the San Francisco of Department of Public Health.

    Caduceus, a 13-year-old SOMA-based nonprofit organization, could lose two-thirds of its budget as a result of the Health Department’s efforts to cope with an unprecedented $163 million deficit. Caduceus, which provides psychiatric counseling to about 100 homeless people, is just one of 104 city-based community program agencies facing the budget ax this summer, as the city tries to deal with a total deficit of $438.1 million.

    “The city is facing an unprecedented budget crisis,” said Denise Martin, program officer for community health at the San Francisco Foundation, which has studied the budget’s effect on service providers. “For a city the size of San Francisco, this is a very high budget gap. This is difficult both for the city and for nonprofits.”

    [ The Public Press' Monica Jensen visited Caduceus and and spoke with Executive Director Marykate Connor about artwork created by the clients. View Jensen's video. ]


    Caduceus Outreach Services from Monica Jensen.


    The Health Department wants to cut $375,000 from Caduceus. Marykate Connor, Caduceus’ executive director, said her clients may fall through the cracks of the social-services system if the program closes. She said that means the city will lose a unique psychiatric treatment service: “In San Francisco, you can get a pro-bono attorney, a bottle of vodka, or a rock of crack-cocaine easier than you can a pro-bono mental health psychiatrist.”

    The Health Department has already proposed two rounds of budget cuts and is preparing for a third. The first two rounds plugged $100 million of the $163 million deficit. But now, faced with plummeting tax revenues due to the economic downturn, Mayor Gavin Newsom has told all departments to slash their budgets by 25 percent.

    The health department is looking for cuts in funding from as many as 33 outpatient treatment programs dealing with mental illness, drug addiction and other problems. At the same time the budget cuts come when many organizations are being squeezed by falling philanthropic donations. Thus, San Francisco nonprofits like Caduceus are forced to consider changes to services, potential mergers or even closure.

    Marykate Connor, executive director of Caduceus, said the organization refuses Medi-Cal payments to protect patient confidentiality. Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    “Most nonprofits in San Francisco are small, and small nonprofits always struggle, but right now, it is even worse than normal,” said Carol Silverman, research director for the Institute for Nonprofit Organization Management at the University of San Francisco.

    Caduceus’ dilemma: confidentiality or cash

    Inside the second-floor office of Caduceus on Clementina Street, there is a living room flanked by soft couches where people lounge and take naps. A stuffed orangutan sits on white water pipes that run across the ceiling.

    Caduceus' clients desperately need mental-health treatment. Most live on the streets, some were recently released from prison or are fighting various addictions.
    Clients attend regular counseling meetings, and Caduceus employees establish relationships with them. The organization helps clients find housing, legal counsel, food and other services.

    Caduceus is unique, Connor said, in that it provides mental health treatment in an environment where clients with drug addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia can feel vulnerable, yet remain safe.

    Caduceus received about $80,000 from the city in fiscal year 2006-2007. The funding jumped to roughly $365,000, then $375,000, in the last two fiscal years. Caduceus also received about $125,000 in federal funds this year. But that funding is contingent on Caduceus matching 25 percent of the federal funding with private donations. This fiscal year Caduceus also received $45,000 in private donations, Connor said.

    Barbara Garcia, deputy director of health at the Department of Public Health, said that Caduceus did not lose funding for being an ineffective nonprofit, but because it declined to accept funds from Medi-Cal.

    “I have been a very big supporter of Caduceus,” Garcia said. “I have watched their development over the years, but we are faced with a real complex dilemma that we have to cut. This program was vulnerable because they did not receive Medi-Cal funding.”

    To receive Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid program providing health care to low-income children, their parents, elderly and the disabled, Caduceus would have to report too much personal information about its clients, said Connor. Caduceus only asks for the names of its clients. For that reason, she said, the organization treats clients who are afraid and will not be treated by other mental health care facilities.

    “We don't want it,” Connor said, calling Medi-Cal “incredibly restrictive.” She said it pays only for some expenses. “Medi-Cal billing is horrific, and we don't want to waste our time doing it. We would need a computerized tracking system, or at least the funding for it, and we don't have it.”

    While other organizations like Westside Community Services do similar types of work, no San Francisco organization is like Caduceus. The department also funds 10 for-profit mental health clinics in San Francisco, Garcia said.

    The big picture

    Photo by Monica Jensen/The Public Press.

    San Francisco is trying to balance its budget by June 30 -- with a projected citywide $438.1 million deficit as of March 31. Meanwhile the recession hinders private donations to the nonprofit sector just when they are most needed.

    Carol Silverman, of the Institute of Nonprofit Organization Management, co-authored an April report on San Francisco's nonprofit sector and found that, even in 2008 when the economic downturn was less severe, the city’s nonprofit groups faced critical fundraising challenges, declining revenues and decreasing confidence. Almost half of the nonprofits queried found it difficult to raise funds in 2008. Almost one-fifth were uncertain if they would meet revenue needs at all.

    This makes life hard for populations traditionally served by nonprofit groups, especially people living on the streets. Connor said the homeless “are desperate for the services, but are criminalized for not being in the services even though they do not exist.”

    The San Francisco Foundation’s Denise Martin said that for a nonprofit organization to survive the recession and budget cuts, it will need strong leadership, and should have diverse sources of funding. Such organizations may have to merge with similar organizations. “Organizations that are traditionally dependent on public funding -- that is a tough position to be in,” she said.

    Connor said Caduceus was privately funded through donations and grants for 10 years. At first she did not want to take city funding, but later determined that Caduceus could not survive on private funding alone. “It is always difficult to find small family foundations that are interested in funding programs that serve homeless people with psychiatric disabilities and addictive disorders, but it is worse because of the recession,” Connor said.

    She doesn’t know whether Caduceus will survive. The organization has been in situations like this before and survived, but she said. “It takes a reckless, delusional optimism and ruthless compassion.”

    Posted by Spot. Us on 06/09/09
  • 5/26/09
  • Supes approve Muni budget after Chiu yields

    By Jim Welte
    The Public Press

    After a flurry of last-minute negotiations, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a revised budget for the San Francisco Municipal Railway on Tuesday, ending a standoff with Mayor Gavin Newsom but not rolling back substantial service cuts and fare hikes.

    Board President David Chiu, who had spearheaded an effort to reject the budget, ended up voting to table his own resolution, thereby providing the 6-5 margin that passed the spending plan. He  characterized the deal as necessary given the city's overall dire financial situation as its faces a $438 million budget deficit.
    Chiu noted that if California voters reject a series of proposals designed to address the state's budget crisis in the May 19 special election, the city could be in an even more dismal position.

    "In these difficult times, we have to figure out a way to come to a resolution that we may not all feel good about," he said. "We are about to head into a budget season that is the worst budget season our city has seen in recent history."

    Chiu's concession came after Newsom had warned the board that rejecting Muni's budget would deepen the city's overall deficit. If a deal had not been reached by July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year, the city would have had to put up as much as $30 million from the General Fund to maintain Muni service.

    The mayor expressed pleasure at the outcome.

    "I am pleased that the Board of Supervisors did the sensible thing and did not reject the Muni budget," Newsom said in a statement, praising Supervisor Carmen Chu for leading the negotiations between his office, the Municipal Transportation Agency and Chiu. "This budget allows Muni to continue to improve safety and reliability, and at the same time it prevents further cuts to other city services such as health care and public safety."
    Campos 'utterly disappointed'
    But supervisors who had backed Chiu's resolution were not satisfied with the deal.

    Supervisor David Campos said he was "utterly disappointed" that the negotiations did not yield more progress on reducing the amount of money other city departments bill Muni for services like the 311 call center and the police department's traffic company, which is tasked with the job of keeping traffic flowing citywide. The revised budget reduced the bills, dubbed "work orders," by an additional $2.8 million, to bring the total to about $63 million for the coming fiscal year. Work orders had totaled as much as $83 million when the budget was first proposed in March.

    "We're still talking about using more than $63 million of MTA money for purposes that have nothing to do with public transportation," he said. "A number of us ran to have a progressive majority that stood firm that we have the obligation to protect the people who are disadvantaged in this city. This effort falls way short of doing that."

    Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi said he was concerned about the latest round of fare increases, which include upping the cash fare from $1.50 to $2.00. He was particularly bothered by MTA Executive Director Nathaniel Ford's mention of the MTA's plan to evaluate fares for possible increases every two years in the future. The city previously raised its cash fare from $1.25 to $1.50 in 2005.

    "I do not want to get into this practice that we must continue to reconcile the Muni budget deficit on the backs of its riders," Mirkarimi said, pointing to "structural problems" within Muni's budget.
    Mirkarimi and Campos were joined by supervisors Eric Mar, Chris Daly, John Avalos in voting against approving the budget.

    The revised budget calls for a delay to the proposed increase for youth, seniors and disabled monthly passes. The pass will increase from $10 to $15 on July 1 as planned, but a secondary increase to $20 will be delayed from Jan 1 until May 1, 2010. The budget also calls for lowering the monthly Lifeline pass for those on fixed incomes, from $35 to $30.
    Parking meter enforcement to 8 p.m.?
    In addition, the MTA will study extending parking meter enforcement from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.,  with plans to implement the extension within 90 days. The MTA will also cap the number of staffers dedicated to enforcing proof of payment on Muni lines. Coupled with work order reductions, additional staff reductions and cuts in miscellaneous expenses, the MTA found a combined total of $10.3 million in additional cuts and savings in its budget.

    Ford said the delay in fare increases and the reduction of the Lifeline pass, a combined total of approximately $1.785 million, would be paid for by the additional $10.3 million. The remaining $8.6 million will be re-invested into the Muni system to compensate for the service reductions, Ford said, using the Transit Effectiveness Project as a blueprint. He said Muni will increase service and frequency on lines that are parallel and complementary to lines that are being discontinued or reduced. For instance, the 7 and 71 lines could see increased frequency to account for the elimination of the 6 Parnassus line.

    Chiu said he was pleased that the MTA had reached an agreement with the police department to provide more transparency to the system under which the MTA is billed for traffic services. He noted that City Controller Ben Rosenfield would be conducting an audit of work orders to ensure that Muni is getting the services it is paying for. He said he was also comforted that the additional parking enforcement would mean that the budget hardship would be shared by drivers as well as Muni riders.

    "We are headed in the right direction," he said. "This meets the promise of being a transit first city."

    Posted by Spot. Us on 05/26/09
  • 5/16/09
  • Cabbies steamed over proposed taxi overhaul

    By James Welte for the Public Press

    Tuesday afternoon, the Board of Supervisors is expected to consider a resolution to reject the proposed budget of the San Francisco Municipal Railway because of steep fare hikes, deep service cuts and millions of dollars in questionable reimbursements to other city departments.

    But the proposal that has drawn the most ire at public hearings is Mayor Newsom's plan to overhaul the city's taxi industry by changing the system for awarding the coveted driver permits known as medallions. Newsom and Muni's parent, the Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA), say the scheme would generate $15 million a year in new revenue for the cash-strapped transit system.

    Read more of this reporting at the Public-Press and if you appreciate it, consider making a tax-deductable donation via Spot.Us.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 05/16/09
  • 5/16/09
  • Supes approve Muni budget after Chiu yields

    By Jim Welte for the Public-Press.

    After a flurry of last-minute negotiations, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a revised budget for the San Francisco Municipal Railway on Tuesday, ending a standoff with Mayor Gavin Newsom but not rolling back substantial service cuts and fare hikes.

    Read more of our coverage on how the city is dealing with budget cuts.

    If you want to support this reporting, consider making a tax-deductable donation.

    Posted by Spot. Us on 05/16/09
  • 5/12/09
  • Our Pitch's Blog

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    Posted by Spot. Us on 05/12/09
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