Mayor Gavin Newsom may call his budget proposal “near perfect,” but it is anything but equitable. For the first time in recent memory, the City’s General Fund would give more to Police than to Public Health – and more to the Fire Department than Human Services. A large crowd of non-profit workers and their clients marched down Market Street yesterday towards City Hall – demanding that the Board of Supervisors save front-line services, and take a more balanced approach to the San Francisco budget. Over the next month, the Supervisors will make changes to the Mayor’s proposal – which usually means saving a few key programs that are a minor slice of a $6.6 billion document. But at last night’s Budget Committee, the Supervisors voted 3-2 to pass an amendment cutting $82 million out of the Police, Fire and Sheriff Departments – so that the City can more evenly “spread the pain” of the financial crisis among various agencies. It was the first signal that the Board means business, and will not be content with just tinkering around the edges.

An Inequitable Proposal


A chart by Supervisor John Avalos compares General Fund spending for Police (blue) and Health (red) over the past two years.

Everyone understands that in this tough financial crisis, budget cuts are inevitable. But Newsom’s proposal makes deep cuts to Public Health, Human Services and Parks & Recreation – while raising funding for the Police, Fire and Sheriff Departments. For the first time, the City’s General Fund would give more to Police ($351 million) than to Public Health ($313 million) – and more to the Fire Department ($192 million) than to Human Services ($188 million.) While the federal stimulus adds to the health and human service budgets, state cuts (which are likely to get worse) will erase much of that gain.

Supervisors are not pleased with Newsom’s budget. “It is misguided for the Mayor to say he values public safety,” said David Campos, “while only looking at one side of the equation. As a former Police Commissioner, I can say that police officers are not the only ones who make us safe. We are dismantling violence prevention programs … This may be a ‘perfect’ budget if you are a wealthy, straight white male from Pacific Heights. But if you rely on public services in any way, it is absolutely devastating.”

(Ed note: In the SF Chronicle and in the original version on sfgate.com, Campos is misquoted. The "wealthy" and "Pacific Heights" portions of his comment are deleted, so he is saying that the budget only works for "straight white males." This falsely implies that Supervisor Campos does not recognize the needs of non-wealthy straight white males, in direct contradiction to his actual words. We hope the Chronicle quickly corrects this serious mistake, and that it is not part of the paper's effort to undermine the credibility of a Supervisor who has proved very effective in budgetary matters.)

Non-profits who provide front-line services to the very poor are facing cuts. But when I heard that these groups would be holding an afternoon march to protest, I was quite cynical about what that would accomplish. After all, organizers spent many weeks assembling a Big Ass March to save jobs and services – only to have Newsom still propose cuts.

But yesterday’s turnout was impressive, and by the time the crowd arrived at City Hall it was a diverse mosaic of San Francisco’s neediest. Supervisor Chris Daly urged everyone to stay firm over the next 30 days, as the Board’s Budget Committee reviews the Mayor’s proposal. John Avalos, who chairs the Committee, came out onto the steps to express his support – and announced he would be proposing $82 million of changes later that day.

An Imbalanced Process

“The Mayor proposes, and the Board disposes.” At least, that’s how it’s meant to work. The Mayor’s budget proposal is just that – a proposal – and the Supervisors can pass amendments before it’s final. As the legislative branch, the Board controls the purse strings – which means they have the power to appropriate (or de-appropriate) funds.

But it’s the Mayor who gets to spend the funds, and Gavin Newsom has a record of thwarting the will of the Board – even when they vote to allocate money. After the recession hit hard last December, Newsom pushed the need for mid-year budget cuts – but did so unilaterally without the Board’s consent. Those cuts went ahead, as efforts by the Supervisors to de-appropriate other funds were unsuccessful.

Newsom submitted his proposal on June 1st, and now the Budget Committee has a month to scramble for amendments. In years past, this meant making a few changes that amount to less than 1% of the whole budget – making the Board largely irrevelant.

Every year, the Mayor also proposes to cut programs that don’t cost much (and knows that the Supervisors will fight to defend), which I have concluded is a ploy to keep the Supervisors distracted. Newsom basically admitted this last week, as he said he would count on the Board to restore a few budget cuts that he doesn’t agree with, such as mental health and substance abuse.

A Proactive and Preemptive Approach

This year, the Supervisors are kicking off budget season differently. At yesterday’s Budget Committee meeting, John Avalos and David Chiu proposed an amendment to Newsom’s budget that would reduce the Police, Fire and Sheriff budgets by $82 million. With those savings, the Supervisors could re-allocate this money to departments that received larger cuts.

A former aide to U.S. Senator Paul Simon, Chiu explained that Congress always tackles the federal budget in two steps: first to compare spending priorities in broad categories, and second to add or cut specific programs. But the San Francisco Board of Supervisors never does the first step, said Chiu. “We always miss the forest for the trees.”

“The Mayor prioritized certain departments over others,” said Chiu. “If we balanced the budget in a way that shared the pain, each Department would get a 7 percent cut. But if we make the wrong decisions, more homeless people will increasingly be in the streets.”

Yesterday’s amendment was symbolic, as it did not cut specific programs. What it did was signal the Budget Committee’s intent of its funding priorities, and attempt to launch negotiations with the Mayor’s Office. Chiu even left the Board Chambers at one point in the middle of the meeting to go to Room 200 – and explain to Newsom their intentions.

The Committee passed the amendment 3-2, which will go to the Full Board next week. Campos, Avalos and Chiu voted “yes” – with Carmen Chu and Bevan Dufty dissenting.

Dufty said that he appreciated the intent of this amendment, but that he would not be ready to vote for it. “There are checks and balances, but the Mayor has the ability not to spend money … We want to make changes that the Mayor is going to want to spend.”

But Campos replied that the Board is dealing with a budget proposal that was effectively thrust on them. “I really feel that things would be different if the Mayor had not made these unilateral choices in this way. I don’t believe the level of input has been there. The Mayor has not had a meaningful conversation with the Board.”

And by asserting themselves early in this process, hopefully Newsom will respond favorably.