Last week, on the very day the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency ginned up a campaign to charm voters on a $500 million Muni bond, LaVonda Atkinson and her husband signed a clutch of papers, and mailed them off.
It was their declaration of bankruptcy.
The former cost engineer for Muni's Central Subway project took a leave of absence last month out of frustration that the agency is “ripping off the taxpayers.” In an April SF Weekly cover story and a whistle-blower complaint with the city controller's office, she elucidated just how.
Atkinson claims she was ordered to retroactively alter the financials for long-dormant Central Subway tasks, matching the budget to the larger amounts actually expended. But you'd never know, because she manually typed “0” in the column which should denote changing costs. But you'd never know about that either, because Muni uses Microsoft Excel to balance the Central Subway's books, despite spending $17.1 million on a program that would actually keep track of those mysteriously shifting numbers.
Atkinson claims a 2013 attempt to reconcile the Central Subway's overall costs with those of its many individual line-items revealed a jarring $141 million discrepancy. Major construction, it warrants mentioning, has yet to commence. Colleagues have assured Atkinson that, in a year or two, those who've purportedly cooked Muni's Central Subway books will have a reckoning of their own.
By then, Atkinson notes, “it will increase the overrun exponentially.”
In filing for bankruptcy, Atkinson did what she claims Muni, obliviously, cannot do: take steps to stanch the bleeding. Her husband, an underemployed computer engineer, is only able to pull the occasional night shift at FedEx. She has one daughter in college, another in cosmetology school, and a third living at home and attending high school. She also supports her mother and brother in Oregon.
In her personal life, making the numbers add up requires more than retroactively doctoring the spreadsheets and entering zeroes in the right columns.
Atkinson — employed by a subcontractor to a Muni subcontractor — was spurned in her attempts to stay attached to the Central Subway project and keep an eye on things. Instead, she last week returned to work, part time, and perused BART-related finances.
In the future, Atkinson says she hopes to pen an academic monograph on the sorrow and the pity of the Central Subway. She'd also like to write a study of the effects whistle-blowers have had in righting the course of wayward capital projects.
Time will tell how her own chapter unfolds.