SF citizens advisory committee recommends revisions to mid-Market community benefit agreements 

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  • Evan Ducharme/2013 S.f. Examiner File photo
  • San Francisco created the mid-Market tax break in 2011 to draw companies such as Twitter into the gritty neighborhood.
Amid a backdrop of San Francisco’s strained relationship with the flourishing technology sector, a citizens advisory committee is pushing tech companies seeking the mid-Market tax break to add more substance to their community benefit agreements.

Questioning the value of promotional tweets, rejecting vague language like “encourage” and demanding more specifics behind phrases such as the goal to “advance technology awareness in youth,” the committee requested last week several changes in the agreements, recommended by City Administrator Naomi Kelly. To comply with the law, companies must accomplish at least 80 percent of the agreed-upon terms.

Companies that apply to obtain the tax break each year must negotiate a community benefit agreement if they have payrolls in excess of $1 million.

City officials created the mid-Market tax break in 2011 to try and transform the area into a tech hub with Twitter as the anchor tenant.

As companies have been settling in, city officials and residents are looking for stronger benefit agreements. And more may be expected of these companies as residents face soaring rents, an increase in evictions and a higher cost of living as the local economy has rebounded with help from a tech boom.

Twitter’s draft agreement of 11 “key features” has increased donations compared to its previous one. For instance, it includes a $10,000 grant to help people facing homelessness; an increase from $60,000 to $100,000 for a general nonprofit grant program; and a new $200,000 grant program for education, digital literacy, women in technology and homelessness.

Twitter has also agreed to once again offer $60,000 in promotional tweets, though some committee members questioned their value.

But Colin Crowell, head of global public policy at Twitter, said the $60,000 is equal to the cost for private companies and the promotional service has proven helpful for nonprofits.

“They use it specifically in their development office,” Cromwell said. “They use it to identify new potential donors to their organization, they use it to identify potential volunteers, they use it as a tool.”

Committee Chairman Peter Masiak called one key feature overstated.

“I’m not sure I understand how promoted tweets and informing people about the mayor’s Project Homeless Connect is going to ‘preserve affordable housing and tackle homelessness.’”

Cromwell responded: “If you take it all together, I think you’ll see what we are trying to do here.”

An agreement with Microsoft/Yammer called for the company to “encourage” employees to volunteer. “I’m not the biggest fan of the word ‘encourage.’ It lends itself to the vagaries that make it very difficult for us to judge this,” Masiak said.

Bill Barnes, an assistant for Kelly, said at the outset that The City has sought to make the benefit agreements “more specific and measurable than they had been last year.” He said that based on the committee’s comments, the agreements would be revised.

The committee will review the revisions on Thursday.

Last year, 14 mid-Market companies received a combined $1.9 million tax break. This year, seven companies must create benefit agreements, which city officials say is a way to counter gentrification forces.

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