By SHALWAH EVANS
It was almost impossible to get into city hall Tuesday afternoon when hundreds of San Francisco residents including fire department workers and their families arrived for agenda Item 65, the hearing to consider the Department of Public Health’s budget to eliminate or reduce medical services.
One resident after another addressed the board for two minutes—30 pleas an hour and a public comment period that went on for almost three hours. Much of it focused on the supervisor’s decision last week to revamp the interim budget—a place holder that keeps city services running—until the final budget is approved in July.
The board upended Mayor Gavin Newsom’s placeholder by taking budget increases away from fire and police to return $82 million to health and social service programs.
“I only have so much you can take, what else do you want,” Phillip Collins, who lives in the Hotel Essex told the board.
Collins, who was shot in the legs in West Palm Beach, Florida 14 years ago, said he
lived in Golden Gate Park in a tent when he first moved here three years ago. He waited for two years until he found housing that would accommodate his wheelchair. He said beginning July his social security benefits will be reduced to $821 from $875.
He was one of several people wearing a bright orange sticker that read: Share the burden, share the cut— a reference to the board’s revision to the mayor’s budget.
“Public safety is not just this idea of fighting fires and crimes. We’re all public safety officers,” one angry resident said.
Ed Kinchley agreed. The Mission District resident and medical social worker at San Francisco General Hospital’s emergency room said he was concerned about the safety of day laborers and general health services for residents. Day laborers, he said, need better work opportunities and services.
By 5:30 p.m., it all began to sound a little redundant and District 9 Supervisor David Campos stood and chatted with Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Chris Daly for the last 90 minutes of public comment.
“Our hope is that we will be able to sit down with the mayor and that the mayor will be able to talk to us in a real way and that we’ll have a meaningful negotiation,” Campos said after the meeting ended around 7 p.m.
Campos said that city budget cuts would disproportionately affect residents of the Mission District, because many of of its 62,000 residents are low income and dependent on pubic health and social services. Campos too wants to share the pain and supports the interim budget that pulls compensation funding from public safety.
Even before the meeting started at 2 p.m. the police, fire and other interested parties were staging protests outside City Hall. As the time for the hearing approached, the interest groups tripped over one another to get in.
The Service Employees International Union appeared to out maneuver the fire department. Doug Novak, one of the security officers at City Hall said that the union had the steps booked for 1 p.m., held their rally and then walked right into the board’s chambers. Fire could have gone to the overflow rooms to watch the meeting, and return for public comment, but most simply left.
But firefighter Erica Arteseros stayed. The Division of Training (19th and Folsom) 11-year veteran said she was upset about the way health services and public safety workers were being pitted against each other. She took the day off work to address the board and waited patiently for two and a half hours. When her turn finally came, Arteseros told the supervisors that firefighter have already taken a two percent deferment on their next raise; while police took a four percent deferment.
“Some members of the board are helping to perpetuate that, and tell people in health services ‘the reason you’re not getting stuff is directly because of the firefighter,’” she said. “That’s inaccurate.”
Arteseros said that most people failed to understand that the fire department’s budget has decreased every year going from 11 percent of the general fund in December 1997 when she joined the department to 6 percent. The mayor’s proposed 2010 fiscal year budget gives fire almost $8 million more in, a three percent increase from 2008-2009.
For District 3 Supervisor and Board President David Chiu, it was simple math. The interim budget would ask for only $15 million out of the fire’s $278 million budget and $26 million out of $433 million for the police.
The money that the board wants to cut is less than the $23 million in projected overtime for the fire department, and $18 million in projected overtime for the police, he said.
Five hours later the board finally took action on the issue. With a vote of seven to three (Supervisors Bevan Dufty, Michela Alioto-Pier and Carmen Chu voting no) the board voted to approve the interim budget with their revision. Share the pain won, but the supervisors and mayor will revisit the issues before a final budget must be reached by July 31.