Benefit districts costly for city 

The City’s bill for community benefit districts could total at least $700,000 annually, and the mandated spending is drawing concern as budget deficits continue to force service cuts for residents at large.

A growing trend among property owners is agreeing to establish a community benefit district by voting to assess themselves an annual fee to pay for services such as graffiti removal or security beyond what The City provides. When San Francisco owns property in an area with a benefit district, it too must pay the fee.

The latest proposed Civic Center benefit district would be the 11th in San Francisco, and it would require The City to spend nearly $250,000 a year in assessments on its properties in the area.

During a Wednesday Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee meeting about the Civic Center benefit district, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd raised concerns about the increasing spending mandates.

“We are not stepping back and looking at the big picture,” he said.   

Elsbernd also said spending $250,000 on the services planned for the Civic Center would likely not be approved through the normal budget process. A “key element” for the Civic Center plan is community service ambassadors, who greet visitors, provide information and report crimes to police.

On Thursday, The City could not provide a total of the assessments being paid out of departments’ budgets as a result of the already-established benefit districts. But the cash-strapped Recreation and Park Department, for example, will spend $150,723 in assessments this fiscal year. That would increase by $32,000 with the Civic Center location.

Rec and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg defended the spending.

“We are leveraging our resources by partnering with the community at large, to augment the level of service in our parks and public spaces,” he said.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees Muni, spent $302,000 in assessments on their properties that fall within the districts in fiscal year 2010.

A majority of those impacted by the fees must vote to form the district, and the Board of Supervisors must approve it and a spending plan.

Existing districts cover areas such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, the Fillmore and Noe Valley.

“It’s a disturbing pattern,” said Gabriel Haaland, SEIU Local 1021 San Francisco political director. “In these budgetary times, every penny makes a difference. Vital city services are getting cut.”

Lisa Pagan, who facilitates formation of districts for Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration, said, “We are leveraging money and bringing in more money to invest in improving the district.”

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will vote on whether to move forward with the process for forming the Civic Center benefit district.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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