Unbalanced Budgeting

The city's proposed parking-rate increases are a scandal. They aren't nearly large enough.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency -- the bureaucracy that runs our bus and light-rail systems, city-owned parking garages, and street-parking enforcement operations -- plans to raise parking fees at garages and parking meters citywide by 50 cents per hour, while raising bus and rail fares by 25 cents to $1.50. To help patch a $55 million budget shortfall for the Municipal Railway, the fines for illegal parking will also go up as much as $25, depending on the infraction.

But as policy, it's the parking-fee hike that's ridiculous. It discriminates against the little guy, and it's an abuse of the powers of the commonweal.

The parking-fee increase is not nearly large enough. It should be perhaps 20 times as much.

The reasons? Arithmetic and economics.

The city's proposed rate hike will take downtown metered street-parking fees from $2 up to $2.50 per hour. That's an increase of 25 percent, but the rate still constitutes a subsidy of between $5 and $7.50 per hour to downtown streetside parkers. That's right, California Parking Co., a private garage operator, charges $7.50 to $10 an hour to park in its various Financial District facilities. By definition, what those private garages charge is what the Financial District parking market will bear. The city has chosen to offer up to a 75 percent discount on that market rate at its 2,707 downtown parking meters. We're talking millions of dollars in unnecessary subsidies here.

Before you choke on the idea that charging $2.50 per hour for downtown parking is a misguided government subsidy, contemplate the obvious (but rarely contemplated, at least in California) idea that parking spaces aren't free.

Every 150 square feet the city uses to provide a parking space at the curb rather than a wider sidewalk, a transit lane, or a greenway that reduces runoff into the bay is a piece of city property that doesn't provide space for people to walk, ride bikes, take transit, or simply enjoy. And every time the city rents that space at a below-market rate for car parking, people are encouraged to drive, rather than move about in other ways. Even with the meter increases, at $2.50 per hour for convenient streetside parking the official city policy will lure motorists into our congested downtown area, which happens to be one of the most mass transit-rich neighborhoods in western North America.

That's simply stupid.

"We're looking at a balanced way to share the solution," is how Stuart Sunshine, deputy executive director at the MTA, described this madly lopsided budget fix to the San Francisco Chronicle.

If maintaining huge downtown parking subsidies is dumb, the other half of this supposedly balanced plan -- an increase in transit fares -- is plain loony.

The picayune hike in meter fees will only make up $13.5 million of the $55 million Muni budget shortfall. Muni plans to close the rest of the gap by hiking San Francisco's current $1.25 bus and rail fare to $1.50, raising an additional $24 million. The agency proposes to save another $15 million by reducing service.

Need I mention that making it that much less attractive to ride the train and bus -- and therefore a better option to drive -- will further increase congestion downtown and anywhere else buses and trains go frequently and affordably? Transit subsidies improve our quality of life by reducing traffic and increasing access. Parking subsidies in congested, transit-served areas make that quality worse.

Rincon Hill, a neighborhood just southeast of Market and the Embarcadero, is experiencing a high-rise housing boom. The adjoining South of Market area is transforming from a derelict industrial area into a mixed-use, high-rise neighborhood with thousands of new residents.

The MTA's "balanced solution" is a budget-year fix that pays no apparent attention to what's best, long-term, for the city: reduced congestion, increased access, and better quality of life. By discouraging transit use while leaving in place incentives to drive, it sets in motion a scenario in which downtown neighborhoods, old and new, will be incrementally more choked with smelly, loud, ugly, dangerous, space-hogging automobile traffic.

That's not balanced.


"That campaign was so diffuse. People made cash donations. We took meticulous records," protests Tom Ammiano, casting his mind back to his giddy 1999 write-in mayoral bid. "There was no intent to defraud."

Ammiano may be right about the intent, but the California Fair Political Practices Commission says his mayoral campaign violated California campaign finance law, which doesn't allow politicians to handle more than $100 in cash during campaigns -- except to deposit it into the bank. The law is meant to keep politicians from accepting bribes or otherwise diverting contributions to personal use -- things Ammiano is not accused of doing.

But his campaign did keep a petty cash drawer that held 50 times the amount of currency allowed under campaign finance law.

Back in 1999, when Ammiano uplifted many San Franciscans with an insurgent write-in campaign against incumbent Mayor Willie Brown, supporters flocked to his storefront office, many offering cash donations, others their time and expertise. Some helpfully ran around paying for photocopies and whatnot with money from a petty cash drawer. As it happens, those giddy idealists were breaking campaign finance law, for which Ammiano last month paid a $2,500 fine.

According to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, Ammiano's 1999 campaign accepted $5,800 in cash contributions without depositing them into a bank account. And campaign workers spent $2,182 at Copy Central, Kinko's, Arvey Paper, Office Depot, and other merchants without bothering to run the money through a checking account first.

"It was in the 1999 race, and the actual runoff race was pretty frantic," recalls Esther Marks, Ammiano's 1999 campaign treasurer. "Most of the staffing at the three campaign headquarters was volunteers. I did give the instruction that any money that came in, we had to deposit it in the checking account. But there were emergencies that came up where volunteers had to run out and make certain purchases. They took cash that came in and went out and bought it."

Viewed from a certain perspective, Ms. Marks' assertion that the use of the cash was innocent, rather than venal, seems reasonable. As long as campaign members didn't steal, divert, or otherwise misuse the money, it's plausible to describe the campaign's cash economy as a technical violation of the letter, rather than the spirit, of campaign finance regulations. There exists an equally reasonable yet different perspective, though: Regulators would have been remiss if they'd allowed Ammiano's campaign to violate laws limiting the use of cash. After all, $5,800 is a large petty cash drawer.

News of Ammiano's fine for events in 1999 might not even be worth mentioning in a 2005 opinion column if Ammiano hadn't spent much of last month as a protagonist in another dispute involving differing opinions about campaign finance. In the current controversy, Ammiano passionately backed his old campaign consultant and contributor, Eileen Hansen, in her candidacy for a position on San Francisco's Ethics Commission, the city enforcement agency that's supposed to punish people when they do things like violate campaign finance law by maintaining bloated petty cash drawers.

Hansen has donated more than $1,000 to Ammiano's political campaigns and has received a few thousand dollars in payments as a consultant to those same campaigns. When Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier pointed out that Hansen could potentially seem biased as she weighed possible punishment for old political allies, Ammiano was heard saying that opposition to Hansen's candidacy was tantamount to a "smear campaign and a witch hunt."

Ammiano's rhetoric seems overcooked, especially in light of his recent fine.

If Hansen had been a member of the city's Ethics Commission when it discovered Ammiano's $2,100 in cash transactions during a recent audit, would she have recommended the $2,500 fine? Would she have sent the matter to state regulators? Or, as a highly sympathetic Ammiano ally, would she have supported ignoring the matter? It's a question that nobody asked during the deliberations over Hansen's appointment, because Ammiano hasn't publicly acknowledged his fine, levied in January, until now.

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