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Husbanding Our Resources 

To close the budget deficit, Mayor Newsom should take on the fire union and SFO's bureaucrats before he closes a single rec center for a single hour

Wednesday, Nov 10 2004
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Let me get this straight. San Francisco's going to shut down health clinics, neglect potholes, and allow trash to pile up in the streets, all because the mayor failed to stick it to the poor and middle class with a sales-tax hike?

Just to be certain I understand properly: San Francisco's hotel employees, and tourism industry, are languishing under a 4,000-worker lockout. And instead of stepping in early to twist arms and bust ass in downtown smoky rooms, our mayor waited until huge conventions began leaving town to turn the strike into a last-minute grandstanding opportunity by briefly joining a picket line?

Sure enough: On Thursday, Mayor Newsom proposed a list of cuts in city programs including transit, health clinics, street sweeping, and pothole repair. And yes, the mayor has made a laudable show of support for hotel workers, but as of last Friday they were still locked out of their jobs.

Wasn't this the mayor who campaigned as Mr. Competence, with wonkish "reinventing government," "new-urbanism," and "rethinking homelessness" policy charettes? The one who stalks the Mission and Hunters Point in a trench coat, single-handedly curing urban woes? At least he's got the public image of his heart being in the right place.

But I remember a few short years ago when the Democratic Party -- for which San Francisco's mayor is now an official next-generation poster boy, thanks to John Kerry's loss -- was the party of competence. This was the mid-1990s. In those days, paunchy Treasury Undersecretary Larry Summers would spring from limousines, phone pressed to his ear, barking at Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin or some other such genius, then turn around to holler something toward one of the legions of twentysomething political-economy postgrads at his beck and call.

By the time this crew had put America's fiscal house in order, overseen a fantastic economic rebound, and got the world talking of long booms, competence was the new currency of American politics. A whole sorority of interns could have fellated President Clinton, and America would still have loved him.

Fast-forward a decade, and Americans again voiced their perceptions of competence in last week's election; they believed, correctly or not, that George Bush was most effectively able to handle the most pressing issue of the day -- terrorism.

Democrats clearly need to retake the can-do mantle if the Republican Reich is ever to end. I can think of no better place for this to happen than San Francisco, the place America sees as the epitome of liberal ideals.

Sadly, San Francisco still suffers a well-deserved reputation as the little city that couldn't, despite competence-like events involving our mayor. He shows up in the Mission District, television cameras in tow. He does police ride-alongs in Hunters Point, accompanied by a New Yorker writer. He issues bold statements denouncing hotel owners involved in the worker lockout.

Yet somehow, we wake up after last week's Election Day and hear the city is going to stop filling potholes. How the hell did that happen?


If there was one great lesson to be gleaned from the Clinton years, it's that unpopular policies can, counterintuitively, build political capital. There was no constituency for balancing the budget during the early 1990s, but the president and his advisors saw this as critical to economic growth, and they did it. NAFTA was a George Bush Sr. holdover that Clinton needn't have championed, yet he saw it as economically important, and it became the most significant successful policy initiative of his eight-year administration.

If our mayor were to take a similar tack of making hard choices with the city's ultimate benefit in mind, I'd bet he, and the rest of us, would be in better shape four years down the line. He can start with last week's budget headlines and take a long-term view of putting the city's fiscal house in order. There actually exist politically delicate, yet ultimately beneficial, measures our mayor can further to put our city on firmer standing. As the Clinton years demonstrated, fiscal responsibility needn't be a zero-sum game.

The city needs to close a $97 million shortfall over 18 months, according to news accounts. There are many ways to get the money without cutting services in the way Newsom has proposed.

First, there's the waste, redundancy, and goldbricking that Newsom promised over and over and over to sweep away.

When he said that, many thought he might be referring to the Fire Department, which a civil grand jury and the city's budget analyst have said is a bastion of featherbedding and overtime abuse. He's proposed the cost-cutting Band-Aid of putting fire stations on a rotating, lights-out schedule, which threatens service without really confronting the powerful firefighters' union.

Here's another potential revenue source that might keep open some of the recreation centers the mayor proposes closing: In coming months, bureaucrats at the San Francisco International Airport are apparently scheduled to receive a payment of between $2 million and $4 million from YVR Airport Service Ltd., a subsidiary of the Vancouver Airport Authority. YVR will make this payment to buy out the interest that SFO Enterprises, a private company formed by the San Francisco airport, holds in a consortium that manages the airports of Honduras. Under the shield of their private (but city-owned) corporation, SFO officials have already improperly diverted government funds, laundered money through private law firms, and otherwise, it seems, violated laws designed to protect public integrity as they incompetently attempted to manage the privatization of Honduras' airports.

Despite campaign pledges to clean house, Newsom has left Willie Brown's disgraceful management team in place at SFO. I'm told the airport bureaucrats recently entered negotiations to sell SFO Enterprises' share of the Honduras deal to YVR. SFO Enterprises has been staffed by city-paid airport employees and funded with taxpayer money. Newsom should make sure the city gets its hands on revenue from the sale, before it disappears into the SFO Enterprises money-diverting machine.

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Matt Smith

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