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Paper Trails 

Wednesday, Jun 21 1995
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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."

Whoever is the next director, the workload will remain the same. The city turned down Conard House's proposal to run the new mandatory housing program for the homeless -- the same proposal that Conard House paid Cronin to prepare.

Dance a Little Dance With Me
Some say that ex-cons Malik Rahim and Jeff Branner have already taken over the Bernal Dwellings Housing Development, but now they are part of an effort to take over the 208-unit Housing Authority project for real.

"For real" in this case means paying $6 million up front, and assembling a proposal that can win Housing Authority Commission approval for rehabbing or replacing the dilapidated units.

It's a bizarre new turn in the road engineered by an unnamed member of Congress who wrote into federal law a proviso that tenants can buy their units if local authorities plan to demolish them. Because San Francisco's $25 million rehab plan for Bernal Dwellings calls for the demolition of the existing units before the building of replacement units, the new proviso has been triggered.

Rahim, who says he spent five years in a Los Angeles prison for armed robbery, made the offer to buy on behalf of the Bernal Dwellings Tenant Association, which he represents as a "consultant." One immediate result: Rahim and his group now have until Aug. 22 to develop a specific proposal for financing the purchase (and to meet other requirements, including financing as much as $18 million in needed rehab).

"We intend to do a full investigation to make sure they are a legitimate resident organization before we proceed with this," says Housing Authority spokesperson John Shanley.

Why the interest by Rahim and others in buying a decrepit project? The profit motive, perhaps. The Bernal Dwellings Tenant Association could sell off the property and pocket the difference. One problem with this approach: The residents association also would have to garner enough money in the transaction to pay the Housing Authority for replacement housing so that low-income units aren't lost in the process.

"No one has done this in the country," says another Housing Authority official. "It's so unrealistic."

Officials at the Housing Authority headquarters speculate that Rahim and others might believe they can make a profit running Bernal Dwellings themselves. Tenant rents come to about $400,000 a year, but Housing Authority figures warn that the cost of repairs and general maintenance exceeds the rent collected. "It costs $12,000 for the elevators alone," says one official. Even if it could pencil out, the feds require a tenant association history of successful management and maintenance before they will risk more deterioration due to slack work.

That may prove especially difficult. The current association's leadership was chosen after a recall of officers earlier this year -- which Housing Authority sources say was orchestrated by Rahim.

Meanwhile, work continues simultaneously on plans by the Housing Authority to tear down the units and erect new ones.

"We really have a few months to play with, we're doing everything simultaneously," says an official working on the plans.

Who's playing with whom, however, remains to be seen.

They Have Answers,
We Have Questions
Not so fleet: Supervisor Terence Hallinan's demand that Fleet Week leader Jack Immendorf produce financial records for the annual city-sponsored week of hospitality for the Navy went out last November. Follow-up letters were ignored, and finally Hallinan got the Board of Supervisors to OK a subpoena. Then state Sen. Quentin Kopp called pal Hallinan to ask for a further delay for Immendorf to go on a needed vacation. Upshot: A meeting is now set for next week that is supposed (they say) to produce the long-awaited records. ... UC President Jack Peltason apparently wasn't in the spirit of gay pride when representatives of the statewide university system's lesbian and gay associations met with him. He declined to endorse a request to support domestic-partner benefits for faculty or students, although such a program already has won approval from every other university quarter. "A statement on my part would not be in the best interests of the university," Peltason was quoted as saying in an e-mail sent to interested parties. "We do very much care what the Legislature and the general public think."

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About The Author

Larry Bush

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