Paper Trails

Table for Two, Please
Such is the state of the city's finances that San Francisco's homeless often have to skip a meal. But the same can't be said for two consultants who were paid by a city-funded agency to advise on homeless programs.

The two -- former Conard House Director Joe Cronin and former Department of Social Services General Manager Ed Sarsfield -- dined together on April 21, and Sarsfield submitted a consulting invoice for $150 for the three-hour chat 'n' chew. The tab could be even higher: Cronin refused to confirm or deny whether his own invoice of $4,400 for 22 hours of consulting included his time at the table.

Conard House Board Chairman Eddie Rodriguez confirms that Cronin might have billed consulting time for the same dinner. "It could have been," says Rodriguez. "We did formally approve the invoice without seeing it."

Among the is-sues that might have been on the (ahem) table for the duo: criticism of Conard House's efforts to discourage a union among the low-paid front-line workers.

Some staff members had complained that Conard House paid among the lowest wages in the mental health field, and that budget cutbacks were simultaneously adding to the workload. Professional and Technical Workers Local #3's bid to organize the staff was met with "informational" materials from management warning that union efforts to increase wages could be blocked by Conard House's management.

One Conard House management memo could have been written by a monarchist: "What the union can achieve in a collective bargaining agreement is limited by what Conard House agrees to provide," wrote then-Director Cronin to all staff.

In the end, workers voted not to form a union, and Conard House management won a second round when a union complaint to the National Labor Relations Board was dismissed after a hearing.

By then, management had spent $22,075.71 in legal fees for advice on workers' rights and representing itself before the National Labor Relations Board. Part of that bill was covered by the Department of Social Services' funds for the homeless. Cronin defended the expenditure of those city funds in a letter to DSS's Brian Cahill.

"I believe spending legal fees to dispute an unfounded union challenge, to protect employees' rights to vote in a union election, and to preserve the quality of services to our clients is a completely acceptable use of funds," wrote Cronin in a March 31 letter to Cahill.

"In fact, the money was spent to protect the rights of Conard House staff to exercise their rights to vote for or against unionizing," wrote Cronin.

(The rest of the Conard House legal tab may ultimately be picked up by the Department of Public Health.)

If advice on how to secure raises was needed, Cronin was the man to talk to: His executive director salary rose from $57,000 in 1985 to $103,500 in 1992.

Cronin's salary, contrasted either with the wages of front-line workers or the monthly welfare checks to the mentally ill homeless people served by Conard House ($345 to $671 maximum), was itself a topic of some contention among his employees. A group of them wrote to the Health Department official overseeing the agency's contract: "We question the propriety of so extravagant a salary for the top officer of a non-profit agency that serves low-income and homeless people."

Cronin has since departed to become a consultant, but the issue of high salaries for nonprofit agencies that rely on city funding remains. Department of Social Services Homeless Program Coordinator Jim Buick says DSS may adopt a formula advocated by Abbott, Langer & Associates, which surveys California nonprofit agencies on the issue of executive compensation.

The preliminary thinking from Buick's shop is that if city funds are involved, then city money should not fund salaries above a certain level.

"We don't have a formal policy," says Buick. "We don't feel we should be setting the compensation at nonprofits, but we could say we'll only fund you up to a certain level."

"I would expect the Public Health Department to have several similar policies," says Buick, "but apparently they don't have any policy in place, either."

Even then, Conard House's $103,000 director's salary might still fall within the formula.

"Conard House is the only one that comes close" to the formula's upper limits, says DSS Finance Director Sally Kipper. "In fact, it is within the standard. It's very likely we'll start to use the standard, but it won't have any impact because everything we do is already within the boundaries."

"Poverty is big fucking business," says Paul Boden, a leader in the Coalition on the Homeless. "The big boys -- Conard House -- just happen to be doing it with mentally ill people." Boden takes special exception to the fact that while Cronin's and other salaries hit the stratosphere, even more of the homeless were hitting the streets because the budgets that pay for the services they need were being cut.

At Conard House itself, the search is under way for a replacement for Cronin. How much will they pay the new director?

"That's an interesting and difficult question," says Rodriguez. "We're looking at a salary range probably between $75,000 to $90,000. In order to attract competent candidates, we've got to make it attractive."

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