Dollars Without Sense

For 25 years, Harvey Ross has rooted out the waste and lies of politicians and bureaucrats. But some say he's too lost in the line items to see the big picture

This time each year, San Francisco politicians smear on the grease paint to stage their painfully predictable -- yet perversely amusing -- public drama: The Balancing of the City Budget.

Lacking the talent or motivation to re-imagine their roles, the city's public servants repeat the same performance each budget season as they chew the scenery and bellow about the city's perennial fiscal crisis. But after the curtain falls and the audience leaves, nothing much changes. The budget still hovers at about $2.5 billion and the deficit remains stuck between $100 million and $200 million. The only kind thing one can say about the presentation is that the players -- the politicians, the press and the pressure groups -- always dive into their roles with gusto.

The cast in this existential farce has changed over the years, as the mayors who write the budget and the supervisors who make it law have been booed offstage and moved on to bigger venues. But only one actor in The Balancing of the City Budget has survived 25 seasons: Harvey M. Rose, the Board of Supervisors' budget analyst.

Rose is a private CPA hired on contract by the board to calculate the cost of legislation and programs, to audit departments and to review the city budget. His role is tightly written: to excavate the inanities, pork and prevarications in the budget and report back to the super-visors. In the hell that is the San Francisco budget process, Rose is the city's Cerberus, whom mayors and bureaucrats must pass in order to get their budgets approved.

No line item is too small to escape Rose's attention, and the worst thing a bureaucrat can do is try to sneak a lie past him.

"One time in a moment of weakness I mis-represented my budget to the Board of Supervisors," says Public Defender Jeff Brown. "Harvey found me out and took me to the woodshed. Boy, I will never, ever do that again."

But while his fastidious attention to minutiae helps supervisors trim the edges of the deficit and pass a budget each year, many say Rose is too stubbornly focused on his role as bean counter to see the bigger picture. They say that the hammy Board of Supervisors, locked into its budget histrionics, needs a stronger actor to play off than Rose.

Not that Rose doesn't know the numbers -- or his lines. But the budget analyst's critics say he's too narrowly focused on finding the sort of "gotcha" waste in government that makes headlines for his clients -- the Board of Supervisors -- and less interested in fundamental questions about how the budget could be shaped to improve the quality of life in the city.

The analyst rejects this analysis, saying that it's the board's and the mayor's job to shape the broader public-policy drama; if the supervisors want more of the vision thing, they'll have to rewrite his role. It's well within their powers, Rose says, seeing how he works on a year-by-year contract.

The critics respond with shouts of "cop-out," insisting that Rose, a self-described Reagan Democrat, has gladly marginalized his role in the budget process so that he won't offend too many of his bosses. The public is the loser, they say. Critics question whether the board is getting its money's worth -- an annual $1.4 million -- from the Harvey M. Rose Accountancy Corporation.

"I could have a junior-college accounting student do what he does," says Sam Yockey, Art Agnos' deputy mayor for finance.

If Yockey's hyperbole is rooted in truth, the critics ask, shouldn't the supervisors at least put the budget analyst's contract out to bid, something the board hasn't done since it was first awarded in 1971?

"It's long past time for him to go," says one former Rose staffer who currently works as a high-ranking administrator in city government.

"I'm a recent grandfather," says Rose in his office overlooking Market Street and Fox Plaza. "This is Nick, this was at approximately two and half months old," he adds as he passes along the baby picture.

"You see he's lying down, his arms are up, he's really happy. I said [to him] he's got a shot at being the board's analyst," continues Rose, pausing to deliver the rim shot: "He must not have understood me."

If Rose is suffering under the weight of the job, he hides it well. As staffers walk in and out handing him memos, Rose grunts orders and waves them away. Like every modern office built since the '40s, Rose's space is equipped with a telephone intercom system, but the accountant prefers to bark orders in person -- all of which promotes his pit-bull image.

As Rose's opening anecdote indicates, the pit bull is a family man. One wall of his office is decorated with framed drawings made by his two grown daughters when they were children. The pit bull is a health nut, too. A set of shelves is lined with pairs of battered running shoes -- Rose rises at 4 am six days a week to run the five miles around Lake Merced. On the wall opposite the children's sketches is a series of photos of the accountant crossing the finish line in a dozen separate Bay to Breakers races going back to the '70s.

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