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

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 Yorkerwriter. 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.

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.

Such a proposal would invariably piss off some neighborhood groups -- you can always roust someone in this town to protest new apartments. Antique-rail buffs might be frustrated; they've struggled nobly for six years to get a roof over the antique cars. But what's more important, happy NIMBYs and rail aficionados, or increased housing and revenue for the city as a whole?

The mayor has demonstrated during the past two years that he has a soldier's lust for political warfare. When his opponents believed they could bring him down by exploiting the Newsom-backed development proposition on the spring ballot, he attacked their left flank, using the issue of gay marriage to become a hero. When his opponents looked poised to counter his every policy proposal to the Board of Supervisors, his business allies formed multiple political action committees and public benefit charities in an effort to sway last week's Board elections in a direction favorable to his goals.

Yet John Kerry's loss in last week's presidential election proved that an aggressive ground game only goes so far. For a political faction to win, voters need something to believe in. Competence just might be that thing. And as America's symbol for left politics, San Francisco likely is the right place to start in convincing the nation that Democrats make government work. Somehow, I don't think maintaining waste and pork in city government and overlooking worthy sources of city revenue -- while cutting back on rec center hours to balance the budget -- sends an inspiring message across the land.

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