San Francisco's budget is $13.9 billion
City Hall, Dec. 10, 2021. Photo by Anlan Cheney.

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.

The Latino Task Force fills the legislative chamber, June 24. Photo by Carolyn Stein.

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. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Some good idea among these comments but it is hard to put together a strategy without some effort. If you can get three people in a room to agree on one you are lucky. Everyone wants to get the homeless people off the street but few people can agree on a process for doing that. You can say that for almost every goal mentioned. I do like the idea of eliminated the PR budgets, as we can live without them and they are way to closely aligned with the lobbyists. If you could figure out how to eliminate those you could possibly clean up the backroom deals that they are pushing.

  2. The Board of Supervisors can pass whatever budget it wants to with 8 votes. The Mayor does not have to spend what’s been budgeted, but she can’t spend on anything that’s not been budgeted.

    The Board, with the power of the purse, can place budgeted funds on Board reserve, which would prohibit the Mayor from spending those funds.

    For example, the Board could put months 3-6 of the budget year of the budgets of the Mayor’s press office, SFPD press office and the parts of the Planning Department and Commission that approve luxury condos budgets on Board reserve and only release those funds when the Mayor meets spending goals on budgeted items that the Mayor would otherwise not fund.

    You don’t get to be a seven year old forever. It is time to disrupt this political Peter Pan syndrome. The Board could make it known that the Mayor will not have a press team next budget year should she throw “incoming” at any supervisor.

    There are reasons why these supervisors don’t stand up for the integrity of their branch of government, and why the gate is kept to ensure that only team players who respect the unwritten rules outlined in this piece get through the door.

  3. There is way too much COVID and stimulus money sloshing around and way too much skulduggery attempting to hoard it. The “Latino Task Force” is just the same old dubious Mission NPO’s, rebranding and attempting to monopolize funding streams. But nobody wants to work with them. They have alienated most city departments except DPW (with whom they appear to be in cahoots to make the Mission a crime infested graffiti covered war zone) and most of the public with their bizarre racial purity tests around every initiative. Businesses, residents and visitors see them as the problem, not the solution.

  4. Why do we continue to put up with the farcical BOS? They’re so ineffective, not only unable to craft effective policies on their own or counter the worst actions of the Mayor. What do they do other than posture and occupy City Hall space

    1. They have convinced us that without them, the Republican barbarians will murder and enslave us… unfortunately the SCOTUS just dumped a bunch of fuel on that fire.

    2. Maria, you’re missing the main point and function of being a Supervisor which is to position oneself to run for higher office.
      See: Haney, Matt – Campos, David – Wiener, Scott – etc …

  5. Bring in some truly independent consultants (like that would ever happen) then take five or six departments a year and have them dissect every penny of spending, then make public their findings in terms of what they recommend in terms of reductions. I’m guessing anywhere between 1/4 to 1/3 of the budget could be easily eliminated.

  6. What City & County really needs is to bring in an efficiency expert from The Netherlands, provide analysis-based results and recommendations, then basically scrap everything except essential services and start everything over again from scratch.

    1. I’d like to see that happen, and I’d vote for that.
      I’d also like to see Chris Daly slapped w a vacancy tax for his BMR place on Valencia.
      Most residents would be grateful for a refund from SF Treasury, our budget is 5x that of major capital cities in Europe. They have clean decent roads and good transport systems.
      SF was voted the worst run city in the state this month.

  7. $13.9 Billion dollars and we have the worst maintained and most deteriorated streets in the entire USA. Percentage of all major roads in poor condition: 71.2%. This is why government should have less power over our lives, not more.

  8. if SF would be a country, it’s national budget is ranking 78th, just behind Bangladesh and ahead of Lithuania. And $0.7 billion ahead of the failed state average.
    with SF’s budget one could run easily countries like:
    guatemala AND costa rica;
    iceland AND ethiopia;
    nepal AND honduras AND nicaragua AND jamaica;
    any of the baltic countries;

    our budget is just insane! do we get ours money worth? hell, NO!

    1. Hah!
      Nice analysis.
      Yes – it is mind boggling and still a mystery as to how “the city’s sunk costs and prior spending levels” factor into this.
      And yet – we are always short of money with dire budget cuts looming.
      And floating bonds – cause there just ain’t never enough.
      Speculate that if The City had $30 billion a year to spend – nothing would change and it would all go down newly created rat holes.

    2. It’s a two year budget. Still astronomical though. If they had the full 14b to squander in a year they certainly would while this place wouldn’t be the least bit better off.

      1. oops, you are right!
        still, it puts SF on rank 94 ahead of Puerto Rico and 140 other countries…

        1. and in the per capita discipline we are rank 47 ahead of 188 other nations.
          mind you, most of them, except Costa Rico, have a military to finance besides many other departments a county just doesn’t have.

  9. I feel, however inefficient, fairness is above winning, above even “national security,” in importance. Mob soccer is somewhat thus. I did very much and do yet love it. All participate on an even level. And it us far above civil to term newsom, a mere womanizer and home wrecker. It speaks poorly that the masses want a winner over a decent winner.

  10. Chris Daly! Haven’t thought about him in a while (and that’s a good thing.)

    When you look at the Board of Supervisors, you should be glad San Francisco has a strong mayoral system. They’re a gang of clowns arguing about whether or not they can all fit in a car, rather than actually getting in.

    1. Funny, Greg, what you describe is exactly the result of a Mayor having too much power, which is actually a terrible thing. Supervisors pass legislation, then the Mayor refuses to fund it. Maybe you think they’re ineffective because you don’t know how things work.