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

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.

In addition to doing a better job of keeping city employees from frittering the city's money away, the mayor could take other steps to actually generate money, and perhaps avoid cutting care for AIDS patients or shuttering homeless shelters.

For starters, Newsom could implement a dormant plan to place parking meters in Golden Gate Park, abating its role as a crowded parking lot for out-of-town commuters and generating an estimated $1.4 million in annual revenue. This would involve angering motorists, something well worth doing to keep our city's budget and service levels on an even keel.

Another simple measure could save the city an estimated $21 million over the next three years while freeing up acres of city land, reducing employee fraud, easing traffic on city streets, and making mass transit a better option for city residents. In March, I wrote a column urging the mayor to sell the city's fleet of employee vehicles and sign city departments up for City CarShare, the partially city-funded nonprofit that rents cars by the hour via the Internet. By using CarShare, I wrote, the city would have a computer record of all city-car use, and it might eliminate the current abusive situation in which employees use city cars as their personal vehicles. By selling the city's 450-vehicle fleet, Newsom would earn the city a huge, one-time, budget-aiding inflow. Just as important, this measure would bolster the cost-efficiency of City CarShare so it could better serve non-governmental San Franciscans.

This spring, the mayor's advisors said he was considering the plan. But there was concern about angering city employees, who love their personal cars, and offending city staffers who are paid to manage the city's fleet. The mayor appears to have buckled.

"They haven't taken your advice of wholesale conversion," said City CarShare executive director Larry Magid when I spoke with him Friday. The mayor has, however, allowed the nonprofit to park two of its cars near City Hall. "From our perspective, the city is doing a great job of promoting city CarShare by putting two cars in front of City Hall," Magid added diplomatically, noting that the mayor planned a press conference on Wednesday to announce his (vastly scaled-back) "support" for CarShare.

I hope the mayor also explains why it's important to shutter clinics, ignore potholes, and stop sweeping streets so that city-employed department supervisors can continue driving personal, city-owned vehicles.

An even more important budgetary step might involve the city spending its money with an eye toward generating future city revenues.

I spent the better part of last week talking with people involved in one such spending possibility, a $4.2 million plan to build a giant shed over the rail yard at Geneva and San Jose avenues. This structure would house antique trolley cars that carry passengers on Muni's F-Line historic light rail route from Fisherman's Wharf to the Castro.

Thanks to six years of urging by antique-rail aficionados, who fear that the painstakingly restored rail cars are deteriorating rapidly for lack of protection from the rain, Muni has secured more than $3 million in federal and other grants to fund the project. Soon, the agency will request another $775,000 in bond money from the San Francisco Municipal Railway Improvement Corporation, an entity created to raise money for Muni projects. By sometime next year, I'm told, builders will begin raising this expensive shed -- which is a good thing. The F-Line has become one of the coolest features of San Francisco. Yet the trolleys, each costing around $600,000 to acquire and restore, have seen their canvas roofs mold and their wood frames rot because they spend nights in the rain.

But Muni, perhaps with some encouragement from the mayor, could make its $4 million stretch even further -- way further. Rather than merely build a shed with these earmarked funds, Muni could study the possibility of using the money to construct a reinforced platform atop the Geneva Yard -- something to not only protect the F-Line cars, but also provide a base for several stories of apartments that could be built in the airspace over the yard. The Geneva Yard, it so happens, is across the street from a BART station, and its entrance is a couple of feet from a Muni rail station. City planners have long targeted this area as an ideal spot for a "transit village," a dense area packed with multi-family housing, stores, and other amenities easily reachable by foot, with access to nearby transit lines.

Muni could charge a developer for the "air rights" over the apartment platform, decreasing the need for fare increases such as the one Mayor Newsom proposed last week. Property taxes from the apartments would further enrich city coffers. By acting as a catalyst for other transit-village development, such a project could further enhance property tax revenues. Another advantage: Neighborhood activists, led by the church-based San Francisco Organizing Project, are actually clamoring for more apartments and stores in this Geneva/BART station area. As it stands, the locale is a wasteland of post-industrial lots.

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