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

"I decided a long time ago that it was unfair of me to compare B movies to A movies," says a former Rose staffer. "And Harvey is simply a B movie. What he does is referred to by many people as gathering the pennies that clank around at the bottom of the piggy bank. Harvey is not a big thinker."

"Not everyone is interested in how much a particular kind of computer costs," says Stephen Agostini, an Agnos budget analyst, who now serves as finance director for Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

"What they really need to know is are our jails doing what we say they should be doing," Agostini says. "If we are putting money into the criminal justice system, what are we getting out? Reduced crime? Are there better ways to reduce crime? If we're pouring money into a park system, are we getting cleaner parks? Is attendance up? We don't need to know what the mower schedules are."

A former Rose staffer compares government to a "black box" into which tax dollars are poured: Rose knows what's going in, but he doesn't analyze what's comingout the other side. Consequently, super-visors only get half the picture.

Although he respects Rose, Sam Yockey willingly joins the critical chorus.

"Harvey's approach is the picayune approach. Around budget time it would drive me crazy," says Yockey, who admits to fleeing to Sacramento to avoid Rose's "chickenshit stuff."

"His way, you get so immersed in the details you lose the overview of what you are doing," Yockey adds.

This narrow focus on the cost of government prevents Rose's reports from capturing its benefits, says a former supervisorial aide. This shortsightedness encourages the supervisors to adopt an anti-government posture, notes the aide.

"If a supervisor disagrees with his analysis, they can be characterized as tax-and-spend liberals," says the aide. "If they agree with him, however, they're automatically frugal, which sells."

A case can be made that Rose's obsession with number-crunching to the exclusion of all else is an indication of his political ideology. After all, he's a fiscal conservative to the bone, maintaining a close relationship with independent state Sen. Quentin Kopp. Last year, Rose and his wife and his company donated $600 to Kopp's re-election bid. A registered Democrat, Rose says he voted for Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and for Bush in 1988 and 1992.

Rose recoils from these critiques.
"Who said this?" he snaps. "Is this you saying this? Or is it really other people?"

Informed that Yockey and Agostini are among his critics, Rose relaxes -- "Oh, okay. So you have a couple of old Agnos people. Okay." -- and dismisses them because they misunderstand his role.

Rose grows agitated at the idea that his role should be rethought, insisting that the big policy questions -- like whether emphasizing outpatient clinics over hospital care would better serve people with AIDS, or whether a psychiatric lock-down facility is more effective than community-based clinics -- are best left in the hands of department heads, the mayor and the board.

"My job is just to report the facts," he says. "Recommending policy would be a ridiculous role for me to play."

But analyst Ken Bruce, Rose's right-hand man at Harvey M. Rose Accountancy Corp., yearns for a bigger role.

"One, we will do whatever the board wants us to do," Bruce says. "Two, we have the guns to do the kind of analysis our critics ask for. And three, we do it in other counties."

The firm recently conducted comprehensive studies in two California counties that prompted the overhaul of governmental programs. In Santa Clara County, the firm's study of the health system led to major restructuring and increased delivery in services to AIDS and mental-health patients.

"We also did a similar review of domestic-violence programs in Los Angeles County," Bruce boasts.

The implication is that if San Francisco supervisors want Harvey Rose to engage in the vision thing, they must assign him to do it.

In 1990, Supervisors Nancy Walker and Harry Britt decided they wanted Rose to do just that.

Supervisor Walker's feud with Rose became legendary. Never the most even-tempered pol, she would sometimes tell the budget analyst to shut up in meetings. She tried several times during the Agnos era to put the budget analyst's contract up for bid, but could never convince her fellow boardmembers. Once, Walker asked the controller to audit Rose's shop, and much to her chagrin learned that Rose had failed to bill the city for $3,000 in overtime.

"That's why that audit never saw the light of day," Rose says.
Frustrated with Rose's reluctance to survey the big picture, Walker and Britt convinced their colleagues to hire three policy analysts: Martha Jiminez, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund; Caroline McCall, a health department analyst; and Del Price, a recruiting officer for the U.S. Census Bureau.

Shortly after they were hired, Terence Hallinan and Bill Maher, the supervisors closest to Rose at the time, tried to excise Walker and Britt's visionaries from the budget before they had produced their first report.

Walker and Britt prevailed, but the antagonism between Rose's shop and the analysts' office was palpable. One of the analysts says Rose was out to "get" them, apparently fearful that they would show him up.

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