San Francisco’s budget season is rounding third, with rancorous protests and dueling press releases and marathon negotiating sessions and community groups pitted against one another. They are made to line up and tell piteous tales during public hearings like a deranged municipal version of “Queen for a Day.”
It’s all really kind of a farce: Government as commedia dell’arte. That’s because, as we’ve written on multiple occasions, it’s difficult to overstate how much more control Mayor London Breed — or any San Francisco mayor — has over the budget than any and all members of the Board of Supervisors. There are, in fact, youngish public-policy-school grads wearing Allbirds to work who have more input and influence on the city’s budget than any and all elected supervisors. They work for the mayor. So do our city’s department heads.
Because so much of our budget is based upon the city’s sunk costs and prior spending levels, even the mayor can only alter a comparative sliver of the overall total. Then the Board, which cannot add to the budget, but only moves money around, dabbles with a small sliver of that sliver via restorations (AKA “add-backs”). That’s how the $50 million the mayor proposed to be added to the police department’s budget has, in the most current iteration of the budget battle, been shaved down to a proposed $46.5 million.
Yes, after a rancorous and arduous series of back-and-forths, the Board has proposed to redirect some $3.5 million, and the police budget will only grow by a proposed $46.5 million, not $50 million. This is essentially a microcosm of the mayor and board’s respective roles in the budgeting process.
San Francisco’s charter provides for a strong mayor. This is how it’s designed to work.
This year’s budget figures to be the final one before the cratering of downtown tax revenues makes for dire times and municipal misery. Future budgets will likely be smaller. But this year’s is still a chonky, $13.9 billion extravaganza. And, as these words are being typed on Monday evening, representatives of the board and mayor are bandying back and forth a deal that might put some $200 million toward the supes’ preferred causes.
This includes funding programs that provide Covid-19 services and food to the needy, and putting money toward housing stabilization. Notably, following political leverage from the Asian Pacific Islander Council, $120 million of the proposed $200 million outlay would be funded via certificates of participation. These are essentially municipal bonds, but with crappier interest rates; debt services on $120 million would eventually run an estimated additional $7 million to $9 million.
So, yes, that’s weird: At this point, you’re probably wondering why we have to deal with debt service — why we have to go into frickin’ debt — regarding a matter of $120 million when we have a $13.9 billion budget. There are any number of logical and/or political answers to that question, but perhaps the most direct one is: San Francisco’s budgeting process is absurd.
As is the way it’s approached by our elected officials and the way it’s covered in the media. This year’s potential add-back package is far higher than it has been in prior years, by a factor of four or five. But this year’s process resembles those of past years: Wrangling this diminutive portion of the budget and directing it toward politically favored community groups was a weeks-long municipal obsession.
The budget is, again, $13.9 billion. The general fund is hovering at around $6.7 billion, of which $2.8 billion is discretionary. But the overriding focus and effort of late has been on dislodging and redirecting this $200 million sliver, to the point of taking on additional debt.
To put things in context, $200 million is 7.1 percent of $2.8 billion and 1.4 percent of $13.9 billion.
Suppose that our Board of Supervisors wanted to focus on the corpus of the massive budget and what departments are proposing to do with their resources and what the gaps are and how that would change service delivery — you know, important stuff. Then it might be better to not wait until the two-minute warning to begin scouring the budget in earnest.
It would require a level of engagement along the lines of all-season analysis and number-crunching, not just hearings in June (or May, for enterprise agencies like Muni and the PUC).
But the Board really doesn’t do that. Every June is monopolized by the frantic yearly drive to glean funding for the add-back list.
The yearly June add-back battle involves “such a miniscule amount of money, and so much of that is predetermined,” says Mark Leno, who went through budgeting battles as both a city supervisor and state legislator. “The back-and-forth is more heat than light.”
But this is beyond a process. It’s a ritual. Because the yearly drive to glean funding for the add-back list is spurred by the yearly mayoral defunding of nonprofits or other entities near and dear to members of the Board of Supervisors. That leaves the supes to be besieged by frantic constituent phone calls and preoccupied with winning back that money — meaning they’re less preoccupied with parsing the details of a massive and somewhat opaque budget (other than searching the couch cushions for the odd dime to put toward add-back funds). The supes are kept busy rebuilding the sand castles the mayor has strategically kicked down. One longtime budget-watcher refers to this as “the annual head-fake.”
This year, Mission residents might have noticed that the mayor’s initial budget curtailed funding for the half-dozen citywide community hubs providing neighborhood residents here and elsewhere with food and covid services. A generation ago, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s move to slash drug-treatment budgets led Supervisor Chris Daly to insinuate that Newsom was a coke fiend — and, thereby, a hypocrite.
“You have tens of millions of dollars in proposed service cuts. These are things that impact people’s lives. And you have to deal with this crisis at hand,” Daly tells Mission Local. And that induced crisis prevented Daly and his successors from “looking at bigger, structural questions in the budget. Maybe it’s part of the game.”
And, unlike Bullwinkle pulling a rabbit out of his hat, this trick always works.
“I would get really tired — and tired is too nice a word — of seeing the same mental health clinic on the chopping block, year after year,” says former city controller Ed Harrington. But this strategy of keeping the supes occupied succeeded year after year. Why mess with success?
“It’s like watching 7-year-olds playing a soccer game,” Harrington continues. “Everyone runs after the ball. And if they keep running after the ball, nobody strategizes, nobody thinks of anything else.”
“The Mayor has them run after the ball.”
And we watch them run. “Well,” explains Harrington, “we do appreciate a certain amount of theater.”
And, it turns out, we may value heat over light.