The Mayor’s Mid-Year Budget Cuts: Cruel and Unusual

by Paul Hogarth on February 19, 2008

Last June, Mayor Gavin Newsom proposed devastating public health cuts– prompting hundreds to rally at City Hall. Now, without even waiting for another budget season, the Mayor has announced $18 million in “mid-year cuts” to the Health Department – including some programs that the Board of Supervisors saved last July.

Newsom blames decreased revenue projections, but there’s no reason why such programs must be slashed. And as much as the Mayor wants to fault Schwarzenegger’s cuts at the state level, we’re partly in this mess because of the City’s priorities. Moreover, allowing Newsom to impose mid-year cuts violates our system of checks and balances – just like when he refused to spend affordable housing funds just last May. Rather than just react to these latest cuts, progressives must mobilize and get to the real source of the problem.

The mid-year Health Department cuts hearken a strange feeling of déjà vu from last summer’s fight: the Mayor plans to eliminate chronic care nurses, shut down the City’s only 24-hour drop-in center, and axe the Workers Comp Clinic at SF General Hospital. He even wants to cut $333,000 out of the SRO Collaboratives – although as we’ve repeatedly pointed out, none of that money comes from Public Health.

But the mid-year cuts go even deeper than what was proposed last summer: the Mayor would eliminate 155 beds at Laguna Honda Hospital, take $3 million out of HIV services, and a 15% across the board cut in “community program services.” Because Public Health constitutes 20% of the City’s discretionary budget, said Director Mitch Katz in his report, “any plan to significantly reduce the General Fund must by necessity include the Health Department.”

These programs serve the City’s most indigent. Over the years, we’ve seen these on the Mayor’s chopping block – only to have the Supervisors restore them during the add-back process. It’s cruel to make these front-line workers and their clients come to City Hall each budget season to plead that their programs not be cut. But forcing them to now do it twice a year – as opposed to waiting until the summer – is cruel and unusual.

The Mayor says that we have no choice: the City’s projected revenues have plummeted, and the Governor’s budget cuts have had a ripple effect at the local level. But that talk is needlessly alarmist, scaring a lot of good people whose jobs are on the line. First, the City has a Rainy Day Fund for such fiscal emergencies. Second, the revenue numbers assume no new condominiums – and thus no new property taxes. Third, if there’s really a crunch the City can freeze vacant positions – rather than lay people off.

And part of why we’re in this mess is the City’s own warped priorities. Rather than cut public health in response to a crisis, an obvious first target should be the Mayor’s new special assistants, but even that would barely put a dent in the budget. Last year, police officers got an 8% pay hike whereas non-profit workers got much less. And in 2005, voters chose to keep open all the firehouses – even if it meant cutting social services elsewhere.

If cuts have to be made, the Mayor should honestly fess up and admit that we can’t just blame our woes on Arnold Schwarzenegger. Instead, we can trace it to the Mayor picking money out of city departments to fund his staff, giving cops a handsome pay raise and a ballot measure campaign by the Firefighters.

But there’s a more disturbing issue raised about these “mid-year” cuts: can the Mayor legally declare a state of emergency and start cutting programs that were appropriated at the start of the fiscal year? Not how I read the City Charter. Section 3.105 gives the City Controller authority to freeze funding if there are insufficient funds, but it was clearly meant when there’s a true emergency in mind. But the Mayor does not have the power to cut funds that were appropriated by the Board of Supervisors.

As Board President Aaron Peskin reminded us last time that public health cuts were on the agenda, the City’s two branches of government are co-equal. “The Mayor proposes and the Board disposes,” he said. If you’re going back to the drawing board in the middle of the year, the Supes have to weigh in.

But that’s not how the Mayor has treated the budget process – or his relationship with the Board of Supervisors. After the Board by a veto-proof majority last May allocated $28 million in affordable housing through the supplemental process, he simply refused to spend the money – claiming that it just wasn’t there. But the Mayor has no authority in the City Charter to make such a determination – only the City Controller can.

Now we have Newsom declaring a state of emergency – and imposing $18 million in cuts for public health programs that the Board of Supervisors had appropriated for the fiscal year. It’s a fight that SEIU Local 1021, Senior Action Network, the Harvey Milk Club, the People’s Budget Collaborative and other groups will not take lying down. Today, they will hold a noontime rally on the steps of City Hall to protest these cuts – followed by testimony at the Health Commission.

The Board of Supervisors should join the fight to save these essential programs – and let the Mayor know he just can’t get away with this. Not in the City of St. Francis.

EDITOR’S NOTE: BeyondChron is published by the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which runs the Central City SRO Collaborative.

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