As San Francisco faces its most brutal budget cutting in history, everyone is looking for ways to either save or raise money without sacrificing essential services. One would think that an obvious strategy would be to continue a $7.00 fee on non-residents choosing to attend the city’s Botanical Gardens. After all, unlike San Franciscans, non-residents do not pay taxes to maintain the Gardens, so paying a user fee to cover the cost of their attendance seems only fair. And considering that the Board’s progressives are always looking for ways to increase revenue, charging an admissions fee to non-residents is a painless way to raise at least $250,000 to fund at-risk city services. That logic prevailed in 2010, when the Botanical Gardens fee was first imposed. But a fee backed by former Supervisor Chris Daly in 2010 is now being opposed by his closest Board ally, John Avalos, who is sponsoring a measure to eliminate it. It’s a strange story, and the Board's decision next Tuesday could reverberate throughout the budget process.

I ran into the head of a nonprofit group this week and learned that the Human Services Agency was cutting their budget even more than expected. She asked me for advice, and I told her what I have often written---that she needed to show the Supervisors where they could find money to fund her group. And I added that she should not rely on the obvious places that Beyond Chron has harped on for years----such as excessive and overpaid Fire Department upper management---as they were just as likely to survive this year’s budgetary process as in the past.

Later that day I read an article about the controversy over the Botanical Gardens non-resident fee, and efforts to eliminate it. While the original legislation creating the fee in 2010 said that it would be removed if voters approved tax increase measures---which they did last November---one might assume that the state and local budget crisis would lead the Supervisors to do everything in their power to stop another $250,000 hit to the general fund.

But that assumption would be wrong. It would also be wrong to assume that supervisors who backed measures like last year’s proposed alcohol fee would be the group leading the fight to keep the non-resident Gardens revenue. Instead, a fee that Chris Daly described last year as “not one of the hard” budget decisions has become extremely controversial.

Ginsburg’s Agenda v. Budget Realities

Opponents of maintaining the fee argue that the Gardens should be free for all, that San Francisco residents get frustrated when they are denied free entry because they lack identification, that the administrative costs are too high (Harvey Rose reported 59% of fees in past year went for administration), and, most importantly, that the fee is part of Park and Rec Head Phil Ginsburg’s broader plan to “privatize” the Park.

Proponents cite the city’s critical need for revenue, the specific need for money to keep the Gardens open for school visits and other weekday uses, and the fact that the money is being raised from non-residents who are otherwise not financially supporting the Garden’s upkeep.

Underlying this dispute is Phil Ginsburg’s controversial decisions to change the longtime vendor at Stow Lake, and to close the Park’s recycling center long run by the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council. While some oppose the fee on the grounds that city parks should be free to all, the Japanese Tea Garden generates $2 million annually from non-resident fees without controversy. This says to me that Ginsburg’s other decisions have built opposition to the Gardens fee that would not otherwise exist.

One does not have to like Ginsbugh to conclude that a fee not even paid by local residents is preferable to layoffs of city or nonprofit workers or cutbacks in vital services. San Francisco needs the $250,000 the fee raises to avoid these results (proponents argue that the revenue generated will steadily grow, and that the past year was misleading because the fee was not collected in the hot tourist period of July and the first week of August).

A Premature Vote?

If the non-resident Gardens fee were up for Board consideration after the mayor’s budget was released and groups were storming City Hall to protest budget cuts, I find it hard to believe that the Supervisors would reject an easy way to secure at least $250,000. But the Board will instead decide the fee's fate at next week's meeting, well before budget cuts to specific groups are announced. And while there was a large turnout at the April 6 committee hearing on the fee, many groups dependent on city funding are likely still unaware of the issue.

I keep reading that the upcoming cuts will be more brutal than ever, and that the “easy” cutbacks were all made during the last two budget cycles. Well, it’s hard to think of an easier fund raising plan than to charge non-residents a fee to use a facility that residents are funding through their taxes.

It’s not Phil Ginsburg’s job that’s at stake if the fee is eliminated; rather, it’s the unionized gardeners, recreation center staff, or even social service workers whose jobs are lost to make up for budget shortfalls in Park & Rec.

As San Francisco prepares for layoffs and cuts to vital services, this is the wrong time for the Board to send a message that saving non-resident Botanical Garden visitors a $7.00 fee is more important than maintaining parks for residents, or protecting vital nonprofit and city jobs.