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Lessons Learned (Budget)

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Earlier this month, interim Mayor Lee introduced his city budget.  He was blissfully understated, and earnestly presented his ideas with the assistance of some adorable public school aged children.  The children smoothly presented his three “s’s” which include safety, solvency and success, and the word principle was used with surprising frequency.  The Mayor was so, well, plain and unpolished, it was downright refreshing after suffering through years of high glamour and flash from Gavin Newsom.

Much has been made of his choice of presentation space inside the Board chambers, which Newsom famously avoided, even after a ballot measure directed him inside.  Newsom was all about conflict, made to play into the hardcore sports fan lust for victory.  Right or wrong never seemed to matter under him – it was always about winning.  He and his staff would try their best to put down the legislative body, tease it like a schoolyard bully, therebye boosting his own political career higher and gaining popularity with the rulers of the school yard.  It was one strategy, but an awful tiring one.  (He was never a consensus builder, so would we categorize him as a desensus deconstructor?)

During the budget season, this style was particularly striking. Former Mayor Newsom would slash and burn the budget, taking care to cut everything important from the more left leaning members of the Board, then hold hostage a pool of money.  The Board was then forced to take away things the Mayor cared about and boom boom pow the game was on!  Firemen would be pitted against children.  Civil service workers pitted against community workers.  Unions pitted against unions.  Things would get ugly, masses would protest, hundreds turning up for hearings to testify, graveyards built in Civic Center Plaza, seniors showing up with safety hats, children begging the board to save their recreation program, folks screaming in the hallways, and just sheer chaos.  The Mayor would hold hostage critical funding for health care and homeless people until the Board put all the patronage positions that help him get elected back in, or his pet projects like the Community Justice Center.  In the end, the Mayor got what he wanted, so I guess you could say he won.  Unfortunately, the losers were poor folks who have seen health care slashed by over $33 million under Newsom, and mentally ill people who have had treatment slashed, and elders with Alzhiemers whose day programs have closed, and rape victims who have lost trauma services, and homeless people who have had six resource centers closed and lost a third of their shelter beds and now have to wait half the night for a bed and….

Fast forward to today. Our interim Mayor, Ed Lee, said from the start that he wanted a collaborative process. He reached out to community members, and talked to the members of the Board.  He held a series of meetings with community groups individually, and collectively pulled together community with department heads.  Most importantly, he actually listened.  Stunning.  He had a very real challenge – he had to close an over $400 million deficit and very little means to raise short term revenue.  The department heads apparently did not get the message at the beginning.  They did the same old thing they would have under Newsom: they proposed slashing pretty much only those programs that left leaning board members would support (you know, the poor people stuff) the stuff that serves communities of color and lifts folks out of poverty.  It took a while, but they eventually got the message, and the budget was updated, even, one could say, radically changed.  Police and fire willingly gave up their raises, it looks like pension reform will move forward without opposition, creative solutions were embraced and the lives of the poorest San Franciscans held some value.

The deepest part, however, was the way the larger community organizations responded.  They didn’t just dissolve into “hold hands and sing Kumbaya” mode, but took it to a whole new level. After having been rejected from the table for so long, they were thrilled to have a place at the table, and so they behaved like perfect plebiscites.  Here they have direct access to power, an opportunity rarely glimpsed and they never bothered to stand up for the people they serve.  Instead, they spoke only in long-winded platitudes and gushing gratitudes.  They felt that by agreeing to sit at the table there was an implicit agreement that they would not make any waves (at all…as in not even a little tiny ripple). This could have been an incredibly dangerous gamble, as poor people could have been seriously played. After all, these very same people have been involved in multiple community processes where after spending hours coming up with recommendations, the report  is shelved with no real outcomes.  Luckily, the needs of the poorest San Franciscans was communicated in alternative vehicles and in the end, Mayor Lee came through with a very thoughtful budget.

The budget Mayor Lee presented to the Board was framed as a work in progress.  It still has about $10,000,000 in reductions to poverty abatement programs.  From one perspective, that seems like a whole lot, but compared to previous years, we would have had almost four times that to fight for.  However, on top of the devastation of the Newsom years, it would not be an overstatement to say an additional $10 million in reductions is catastrophic.  As a community, people will have to stand up and fight – perhaps fight alongside the Mayor instead of against him – but fight nonetheless to get that funding for poor people.  We cannot accept, for example, losing hours at the only resource center in the Tenderloin, or losing doctors at psychiatric crisis.

Now we return to lessons learned for the next Mayor, and there are quite a few. Formerly nasty spitting Mayoral aides frequently witnessed hissing bile into Supervisor Aide’s faces can be seen skipping and smiling down the palace hallways.  Decisions can be based on reason as opposed to political expediency.  Politics do not need to be based on blood sports.  Simply smile and invite your processor’s opponents to the table and they will be putty in your hands.

In the end, Mayor Lee is far more popular then Newsom ever was, is much more respected, and the decisions made (at least in the budget process) are the right ones for the people of San Francisco.  The main lesson: working together actually works.

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Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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