With San Francisco’s budgetary prognosis heading deeper and deeper up the creek, the city today lost its paddle: Longtime controller Ben Rosenfield announced that he’s turning over his calculator and departing City Hall.
Like so many San Francisco government hands, it felt as if Rosenfield was the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel; he’s always been here. And if by “always” you meant nearly 27 years working for the city and 16 as controller, you’d be right. In the past month or so, he’s been telling a select handful of colleagues that he was readying to depart. This week, he braced everyone for today’s announcement.
“I have loved the job, and I have loved the work,” Rosenfield told Mission Local. “But, it’s also true that I’ve been doing it for a very long time.”
Rosenfield was — and is — fastidiously nonpartisan. His departure prior to next year’s pending Book of Revelation-caliber budget nightmare could well be leveraged to gin up any number of partisan arguments or fuel a further news cycle of dopey doom loop stories.
But, according to a handful of Rosenfield confidants, City Hall higher-ups across San Francisco’s political spectrum, and Rosenfield himself, the number spurring the controller’s departure isn’t the city’s stratospheric budget or troublesome burgeoning deficit but, rather, 50.
As in the big five-o: Believe it or not, Rosenfield won’t turn 50 until January 27; other than a schoolteacher gig a year out of college, working for San Francisco is the only job he’s ever had. There is never a good time for a city controller to leave his post, Rosenfield admits — but 50 makes things nice and neat. On to whatever’s next.
He has, after all, always been the caretaker.
As you’d expect of the chief money person in a city with a larded-up $14.6 billion budget, Rosenfield is pretty good with numbers. But to cite his fiscal expertise as the source of Rosenfield’s unique position of near-universal trust and respect from all public and private corners of the city would be a bit like saying Daniel Day-Lewis is a good actor because he remembers all his lines.
Rosenfield, who was tapped for this job in 2008 as a 33-year-old wunderkind, is lauded for his affability, non-partisanship, selflessness, ingenuity, and uncanny knowledge of the Lilliputian ropes holding together our budget. Rosenfield honed a particular skill to, by some alchemy, rummage through the municipal sofa to find a few coins to run imperiled programs — and, finally, he possessed the gentle but firm ability to inform an elected official or department head that they were overspending their budget and must rein things in.
“He just knows more about the city budget than anyone else,” said Sean Elsbernd, the mayor’s chief of staff and a former supervisor. Elsbernd started in government a year after Rosenfield, and noted that the latter was perhaps the final holdout in City Hall to obtain a cell phone. Rosenfield, after all, was able to do a lot of stuff in his head.
“There is no one who knows every drawer, every nook and cranny like Ben does,” Elsbernd continued. “He knows every single account, he knows the revenue, he knows what revenue goes into what account. He is a computer. You ask him what happened in 2017 to this fund, and he can tell you.”
Board President Aaron Peskin also likened Rosenfield to a computer: “A really nice computer.” Rosenfield “knew what his duties and responsibilities were. He would, calmly and respectfully, not challenge your ideas, but make them better.”
“He knew what people wanted, but was creative enough to put other ideas on the table. Everybody who gets involved in government starts out by wanting to do the best for their city, state, country. Ben was able to refocus people in the heat of battle, as people were mistreating each other and pursuing political agendas. He could always bring us back to what’s best for San Francisco. And he could do that because he was selfless. Let the egotistical politicians feel like they’re still getting credit; he never cared about credit. He wasn’t in it for self-aggrandizement, and that was his magic.”
“The business of human life and politics is getting people on board with your ideas,” continued Peskin. Rosenfield’s ability to consistently galvanize City Hall politicos and move the city’s best interests forward indicated that he was “the best and most subtle politician in City Hall, bottom-line.”
Rosenfield stressed that dread or frustration over next year’s looming budget debacle — which will, cherry on top, come during a mayoral re-election campaign and the contract negotiations for more than a score of public-sector unions — did not fuel his decision.
But that doesn’t mean he was thrilled with this year’s budget process, during which difficult decisions were punted to 2024 and the city remained solvent, in large part, because of fiscal legerdemain and dipping into the prodigious reserves Rosenfield, in years past, pushed to establish. He expressed as much to his City Hall colleagues and also put it in black and white for all to read in his revenue letter regarding this year’s budget.
“In that letter, we noted that the budget very heavily relied on one-time sources, drew on reserves, and on remaining federal relief,” Rosenfield said. “We offered that critique to the mayor’s proposed budget, and the mayor and board did not change anything in the proposed budget. There are larger gaps left than we hoped.”
There are, he said frankly, “hard times ahead for the city, and hard choices for the mayor and board in coming years.”
And those times will be harder without a consummate professional, budget maestro and human cooling rod like Rosenfield in the mix. Both Elsbernd and Peskin, independently, referred to him as “the adult in the room.” Rosenfield’s calmness and maturity will be sorely missed in 2024.
“Not many people in this building have the kind of universal credibility, charm and nerdy know-how,” said Rudy Gonzalez, the secretary-treasurer of the city’s Building & Construction Trades Council. “Having been part of a few rounds of ballot and budget negotiations, I can say I will miss his technical expertise and, above all else, his commitment to the city of San Francisco — no matter the audience, be they a business, a mayor or a union worker.”
“I have many reasons to lose sleep these nights,” Gonzalez continued. “This just added another.”
The fiscal reserves San Francisco is steadily burning through are there, in part, because Rosenfield pushed to sock this money away. By the end of the present budget’s term, the city will have liquidated some 43 percent of its pre-pandemic reserves. And, in spite of Rosenfield’s warnings, we have not used the time that money has bought to make structural changes to match San Francisco’s new fiscal reality.
“When times are bad, there is a rush for money. When times are good, there is a rush for money,” said former controller Ed Harrington, a close Rosenfield ally. “There’s always a rush. There is always a desire to spend more than there is to spend.” A controller’s most basic function, Harrington says, “is just making sure that people are doing things as responsibly as possible.”
That’s a hard job, and one that doesn’t end when the sun goes down. And, come February, it’ll be someone else’s job.
Rosenfield, the father of 13- and 16-year-old girls, emphasizes that he “isn’t going anywhere.” He wants to “downshift” for a little while, and then move into something “in public service, and for the public good. That’s as far as I’ve gotten.”
After 27 years in City Hall, he’s excited to leave the building. San Francisco will always have its problems. But Ben Rosenfield can’t always be the caretaker.