Garcia: City Hall budget politics hurt SF 

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors doesn’t make the distinction between acting as societal saviors or unremitting spenders, which is why when it comes to taxpayer money, the numbers rarely add up.

That is why the political tilt-a-wheel known as the budget process is in operation early and often this year and promises to be the sort of carnival sideshow that the board majority seems to crave.

Rarely has that been on display more clearly than this week’s pyrotechnics over a proposal to grab nearly $30 million in supplemental funds from the general reserve to provide Supervisor Chris Daly with a soapbox about his protection for society’s most vulnerable citizens — those in need of affordable housing. What is remarkable is how blithely a majority of the board views The City’s finances, turning a surplus into a deficit with a last-minute raid on the budget.

Adding supplemental additions to the budget is hardly a new game for the legislative body — but doing it so late in the process is. One could argue that Mayor Gavin Newsom overreacted to some of the spending requests, but that is probably the response any executive would have if he was told that his department heads were spending $50 million more than they were allocated two weeks before he’s supposed to send his budget to his bosses.

We could all argue that additional funding for affordable housing is a good idea, but there is a finite amount of money in the budget, which is one of the reasons San Francisco has been running a deficit for seven years. Supervisor Bevan Dufty told me he supported Daly’s request because San Francisco hasn’t approved an affordable housing bond in years.

But there’s a reason that the threshold for getting taxpayer approval for revenue bonds is so high — voters don’t want individual politicians or groups deciding how to spend their money. Yet in a town where supervisors can win elections with less than two percent of the citywide vote, spending taxpayer money for pet projects has become something of a rite of spring, with officials deciding to grab $10 million or $20 million because — well, they can.

The ongoing budget games not only create fiscal chaos, they make it difficult for all city managers to do their jobs. Every penny that the supervisors grab at the 11th hour means another penny is taken out of the pot for transportation, street cleanup and recreation and parks.

Indeed, analysts reported that San Francisco would see more than $100 million in budget deficits over the next two years, to which supervisors reacted by padding their funding requests. That may play to the partisan politics that seem to motivate officials at City Hall these days, but it’s terrible fiscal policy for a city that usually seems to get little bang for its billions of bucks.

But let’s face it — the budget battle is as much about supervisors sticking a thumb in Newsom’s eye as it as about anything else, since the level of cooperation between his office and the legislative branch has never been lower and several supervisors will do anything they can to make his job miserable. As Newsom noted in an editorial board meeting at The Examiner a week before Daly said the exact same thing, the mayor would look horrible if he were to veto a funding request for affordable housing, especially in an election year. Nothing like putting on the squeeze play.

One might think that our elected officials could work together to set priorities for The City’s budget, but that would assume a certain level of maturity and cooperation, two things sorely lacking down at the Civic Center political headquarters. The so-called "progressives’’ who hold a majority on the board will do anything they can to try and stop Newsom from winning a second term, and Newsom is so tired of dealing with them that he’s all but stopped trying.

So there are no winners here, only losers — the citizens of San Francisco. We can complain about the state of Muni right now, but it’s hardly a surprise that a transportation system that has had to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its budget in recent years is not a smooth-running operation.

We can wonder why the streets are dirty or why our parks are poorly maintained. But the answer always comes down to the same thing — a budget rife with politics and woefully short on practicalities. And average, taxpaying citizens have little or no say in the process.

There may be no limit to the appetite for political theater in San Francisco. But it is not so special that it can be the one magic city that can afford to spend money it does not have.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.


E-mail your city officials:

Mayor: Gavin Newsom

Supervisors: Jake McGoldrick - District 1; Michela Alioto-Pier – District 2; Aaron Peskin - District 3; Ed Jew - District 4; Ross Mirkarimi - District 5; Chris Daly – District 6; Sean Elsbernd - District 7; Bevan Dufty - District 8; Tom Ammiano - District 9; Sophie Maxwell - District 10; Gerardo Sandoval – District 11

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