While previous budget cuts—including the earlier round of this fiscal year—were often politically motivated, there is no doubt but that the cuts which began at the beginning of this month were necessary. The global economic crisis is real, and its effects in San Francisco are harsh and inevitable.
What was far from inevitable was the manner in which the cuts were made. Instead of prioritizing spending based on need, Mayor Gavin Newsom opted for the blunt instrument of apportioning cuts based on the percentage of the General Fund—the part of the budget unencumbered by contract or voter mandate—used by each department. Thus, because the Department of Public Health is less funded by grants and set-asides than is some other departments, it received one of the largest overall cuts.
This was a poor calculation, based on a formula derived more from tossed up hands than from human demand. But the cuts made within the Department of Public Health were very calculating indeed, focusing almost entirely on front-line staff, and leaving managerial positions unscathed. Staff layoffs often targeted active union members, ignoring seniority or position necessity.
The outcome of cuts based on an arbitrary formula is the spoliation of the public health infrastructure for vulnerable people—poor people, homeless people, people with disabilities, queers, people of color, immigrants, women, seniors, the great majority of our society that fits into more than one of these categories.
In response to this, 17 non-profits and two unions joined to form the Coalition to Save Public Health: a limited-term alliance to organize our communities and convince our government that public health infrastructure is a vital part of San Francisco, and should be a greater budgetary priority than much of the waste that characterizes governmental spending in the city.
The Coalition conceived a two-part plan: First, since cuts were manifestly necessary, the budget should be amended to cut funding from the more wasteful aspects of government, in order to restore some of the health services undone through the current cuts. Secondly, as the economic crisis was likely to worsen, the City projects over half a billion dollars’ deficit at current expenditure levels. This cannot all be made up with cuts—not rationally, not safely—so the Coalition is advocating a special election in June—the last month before the new fiscal year begins, thus giving the City a last chance to find adequate funding for the most vital City programs.
On Tuesday, January 27, these measures went before the Board of Supervisors, where, unfortunately, they became highly politicized. The supervisor probably most responsible for this politicization was District 7’s Sean Elsbernd, who attempted to prevent a public hearing on the budget restructuring, and graphically displayed his impatience during public testimony as public health consumers and advocates spoke about the community impacts that program closures would have. Elsbernd would later sarcastically respond to the testimony in Board discussion, even mockingly parodying some of it. While Elsbernd had previously spoken against a summer special election, he had a change of heart once he realized that he could use the promise of his vote as leverage to get a pet charter amendment which he has supported for years, but for which he had heretofore been unable to find adequate support, placed on the ballot. This substantive amendment, however, took second place to a phraseological amendment designed to rub in, yet again, Elsbernd’s conservative ideology.
Fellow regressives Michela Alioto-Pier (District 2) and Carmen Chu (District 4) voted consistently in a bloc with Elsbernd, while progressives John Avalos (District 11), David Campos (District 9), Chris Daly (District 6), Ross Mirkarimi (District 5), Eric Mar (District 1) consistently supported the measures. Swing votes Bevan Dufty (District 8), and Sophie Maxwell (District 10) swung predictably with the majority.
But perhaps the greatest disappointment is the thus-far milquetoast presidency of David Chiu. Apparently fearing a confrontation with Mayor Gavin Newsom, Chiu voted against the budget restructuring, despite having signed publically his support for these efforts of the Coalition to Save Public Health.
The result was that the budget restructuring was sent back to committee. It will likely pass, but not in time to save the non-profit organizations which will see their cuts take place on February 2. The Board rescheduled to vote on a waiver making possible the election (complete with Elsbernd’s amendments) on February 3. The result of that meeting is not known at press time.
It is not too late for vulnerable people’s healthcare programs in San Francisco—the closures at City-run programs will not occur until February 20—but we have already lost one of our most important battles.
In the mean time, Mayor Gavin Newsom continues to tout the Healthy San Francisco program around the country, despite its having been gutted to all but meaninglessness through his cuts. The Mayor seems genuinely oblivious of this result. In the mean time, he has no substantive plan for addressing the growing economic crisis save more and more cuts.
During one of its greatest crises, our city is suffering from a total lack of leadership—a total lack of recognition that our politicians have been entrusted with the stewardship of this city and its people. The Mayor has no plan. The Board of Supervisors, when asked to take responsibility, regressed into third grade regressive versus progressive politics.