The auditorium of Horace Mann Middle School last night had an energy that was one part town hall, one part tent revival. There were videocameras, hundreds of attendees, and small children pushing matchbox trucks underneath the chairs. Outside, there were ham and cheese sandwiches, chips and salsa, and lemonade.
This town hall meeting was about the budget — the city says it has $360 million less than it needs to run its programs at current levels. It also has a new mayor, Ed Lee, who has a reputation as both a skilled city manager and an advocate for the city’s working-class immigrants — one reason, perhaps, why the room had a buoyant air, despite the seriousness of the budget cuts ahead.
The meeting was intended as a way for Mission residents to offer their opinions about what should be cut and what should be saved. This was a crowd interested in saving. The only budget cut suggestion came from a man who asked that putting in bike lanes on Cesar Chavez be delayed until the city is in better fiscal health. He was politely told that the money for the Cesar Chavez redesign is from the feds, not the city.
“I am very concerned,” said a woman, through an interpreter, “about all these budget cuts with the families and the youth and the housing. The family is going to be very affected. I’m here with the women’s collective.” Here, she said, pointing to a group of women across the room, which promptly burst into wild cheering. “How can we work together so that these budget cuts don’t affect families?” The crowd burst into applause, and even more whooping.
“Good afternoon to the distinguished people on this stage,” said another man, also through an interpreter, “and thank you for sharing this time with us.
“My name is Jose Ramirez, and I represent about 150 day laborers who get together through this Day Labor program. It’s a refuge where we can take space from different things we deal with.
“It’s really important to us that we feel good and that this place is a safe space. So I come here with a petition: When you are talking about children, also think of parents and see that they have services provided for them. Gracias.” More applause.
“I’m Robert Lopez,” said another speaker, approaching the public comment microphone. “I represent the Mission Hiring Hall. We’ve been in the community since 1971. We’re known as the placement agency in Mission. People come here looking for jobs, and we get them jobs. But our budget has been cut. We’re doing the same job with less. I think jobs keep people off the street. My father always said that.”
This got the wildest round of applause yet. “So true!” yelled a man in the center of the auditorium. “So true!”
“Thank you. Gracias,” said Supervisor David Campos, who was the evening’s de facto emcee. “To those department heads that haven’t been able to speak yet. How do you approach these cuts?”
“Thank you, supervisor,” said William Siffermann, chief probation officer at the Juvenile Justice Division. “We look at what basic services we must provide in order to comply with the law, and then add from there.”
“We eliminate management, support staff, unnecessary vehicles and cell phones,” added Department of Public Works Director Edward Reiskin. “We focus on workplace safety, so we don’t pay a lot of workers’ comp costs. Even as health costs go up, our workers’ compensation costs go down.”
“We look for outside funding,” said Barbara Garcia, director of the Department of Public Health. Healthcare reform, she said, would be pouring more money into the DPH simply because more city residents would qualify for MediCal.
“We work with the community to keep parks clean and safe,” said Recreation and Park Director Phil Ginsburg. “We try to prioritize revenue over cuts,” he added, but refrained from mentioning the sturm und drang that resulted last year from this prioritization, when Rec and Park came under fire for selling concessions to market food and coffee in Dolores Park. “Unfortunately, that’s government in the 21st century,” he concluded.
“I’m going to ask all these agencies to start planning,” said Mayor Ed Lee.“You cannot have a sustainable plan with a yearly budget cycle. I want you to plan with us for five years ahead. Don’t do year-to-year programming any more. That won’t cut it.”
It was an unexpected request from a man whose personal mayoral agenda is limited to just a few more months. The next mayoral election is in November, and Lee has said he will not run. But the crowd went wild anyway. The meeting ended with chants of “Sí, se puede!” as Campos took the microphone once again.
“OK,” he said. “So we have behaved really well. And the Mission is known for making a lot of noise, which is why we just made a little noise together. We want to ask you to continue to come out to City Hall to make sure your voices are heard. The fact that we are here collectively and with the mayor shows that he is willing to hear you out.
“What I’m hearing is we can’t follow the trend the whole country is following — cutting social services and favoring the wealthy. We need to figure out a way where we all pay. We want a city that works for all of us. This crowd wants their safety net protected. They want basic services.”
“This will not be our last meeting,” said Mayor Lee. “I’ve listened very carefully. I think that you and I and the other supervisors will have to think very hard of how to define ‘progressive’ when we think of ways to raise revenue. Thank you very much. You’ve been a wonderful crowd.”