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Read Previous George Wooding Articls about Laguna Honda Hospital

George WoodingRPD's Ginsburg and Ballard's Official Misconduct Referred to Ethics Commission

In May 2011, San Francisco's Recreation and Parks Department (RPD) and its governing body, the Recreation and Parks Commission (RPC), sought to derail a public debate about plans for Golden Gate Park at a Commonwealth Club panel discussion. That a City department and its highest-ranking employees would engage in stifling public debate is deplorable enough.

That the same City department then withheld public records regarding its attempted curtailment of the First Amendment was equally disturbing, and led to a five-month battle to release public records.

The outcome involved my citizen's victory at the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which has referred "willful violation" and "official misconduct" charges against RPD staff to San Francisco's Ethics Commission for enforcement of the Sunshine Ordinance.

There are many fine people who work for San Francisco's RPD, but RPD General Manager Phil Ginsburg and RPD's Director of Policy and Public affairs, Sarah Ballard, among others, are ruining RPD's reputation for good governance.

In 2008 Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed his former Chief of Staff Ginsburg as RPD's General Manager. Ginsburg had no experience with recreation or parks. Ballard was formerly a legislative aide to Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier, and the wife of Newsom's former press secretary Nathan Ballard.

Although Ginsburg and Ballard are both politically well-connected, they've demonstrated considerable lack of judgment and ethics. Being appointed to a job because you are politically well-connected to Newsom doesn't make you suddenly qualified.

The Ginsburg-led RPD is relying heavily on public-private partnerships with wealthy individuals and businesses to generate income for RPD. These relationships have potential to be financially very beneficial, but Ginsburg's and Ballard's desire to please wealthy donors has created a situation where the RPD is pushing private-donor agendas over public agendas.

In effect, the RPD has become a lobbyist for wealthy people, businesses, and organizations who give RPD money. If your neighborhood wants a drinking fountain fixed, the RPD may (or may not) get around to it. If billionaire Warren Hellman, sponsor of the "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass" festival, or the Fisher Family, major donors to the City Fields Foundation, want a favor, Ballard and Ginsburg will be on their knees begging to help out. This need to please donors has led directly to freedom of speech issues and charges of ethics violations against Ginsburg and Ballard.

RPD employees Phil Ginsburg, Sarah Ballard, secretary Olive Gong, and RPC president Mark Buell were all found to have violated four sections of the Sunshine Ordinance, including failure to respond to immediate disclosure requests, withholding documents, failure to justify withholding of public records, and failing to assist the requestor. The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) is an 11-member committee appointed by the Board of Supervisors to ensure compliance with local open government laws. If the SOTF determines a violation of the Ordinance has occurred involving willful failure or official misconduct, cases may be forwarded to the Ethics Commission for enforcement.

On October 25, the SOFT voted unanimously to forward charges of official misconduct against Ginsburg and Ballard to the Ethics Commission under Section 67.34 of the ordinance, which involves the willful failure — deemed official misconduct — of any elected official, department head, or other managerial City employee to discharge duties imposed by the Sunshine Ordinance, the Brown Act, or California's Public Records Act.

In addition, the SOTF also ruled that RPD secretary Olive Gong, RPD's Custodian of Records, and RPC president Mark Buell had also failed to comply with the SOTF's August 8 Order of Determination regarding my Sunshine Complaint No. 11049, George Wooding v. Recreation and Parks Department, resulting in a referral to Ethics under Sunshine Section 67.30(c), which applies to any person who has violated any provision of the Sunshine Ordinance or other public records Acts.

SOTF's referral to Ethics is also pursuant to City Charter Section 15.105 regarding suspension and removal.

If the Ethics Commission upholds the SOTF referral against these four RPD staff, the case will be forwarded to Mayor Ed Lee, who will then have to decide if the four should be removed for misconduct. This is the third major Sunshine violation by the RPD in the last three years. Ironically, every RPC meeting agenda includes a required statement: "Know your rights under the Sunshine Ordinance. Government's duty is to serve the public, reaching its decisions in full view of the public."

Private Partners Sabotage Public Event

San Francisco's Commonwealth Club scheduled a panel discussion for May 11 titled, "Golden Gate Park Under Siege!" The four invited panelists included Mark Lynes, Conservation Director and General Counsel for the Golden Gate Audubon Society; Katherine Howard, ASLA, a landscape architect and member of the Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance's steering committee; Anthea Hartig, Ph.D, president of the Western Office National Trust for Historic Preservation; and myself, as the then-current president of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council. The panel moderator was Jim Chappell, the former director of SPUR.

A promotional flier for the forum indicated that dramatic, potentially devastating changes to Golden Gate Park were underway as privatization and industrial development converge, indicating the forum would include supporters, neighbors, and members of local organizations who aim to protect the park's heritage.

City Fields Foundation wants RPD to pave over the seven-and-a-half-acre Beach Chalet soccer field by replacing natural grass with artificial turf, add 60-foot lighting, widen roads, increase parking, and add bleachers so that the synthetic fields can be used until 10:00 p.m. every night. Additionally, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is trying to add a four-acre wastewater treatment plant right beside the synthetic soccer fields. With trees being chopped down and natural grass fields paved over with recycled rubber tires, over half of the western edge of GGP is going to be altered. The Golden Gate Park Master plan clearly states the western part of GGP should remain in a natural state, but the RPD needs the Fisher money and the PUC rent money more than they need the natural fields and landscape.

Fearful the Commonwealth Club forum might upend the Fisher Family's soccer field plans, Ginsburg, Ballard, Buell, and lobbyist Susan Hirsch, Director of the Fisher's City Fields Foundation, tried to cancel or alter the forum. Ten days before it was to be held, the Commonwealth Club's switchboard started receiving calls stating that the panel was "unfair and biased," followed by letters and phone calls to members. Sarah Ballard e-mailed the Commonwealth Club that panelists were likely to incite the audience, were not rationally able to discuss the issues, and were deeply biased. She claimed the panelists had no interest in discussing facts and recommended the forum be canceled.

Buell e-mailed Commonwealth Club CEO Greg Dalton that he found the forum's title inflammatory and the participants biased. Buell demanded the forum's title be changed to "Issues Facing the Park" and demanded an RPD representative be included on the panel. Buell was added as a panelist, but the Commonwealth Club held its ground, changing the forum's title to "Golden Gate Park Under Siege?," simply replacing the exclamation point with a question mark.

City Fields Foundation's director Hirsch, who is concurrently president of Hirsch and Associates, wrote to Commonwealth Club event moderator Jim Chappell from her private e-mail address on May 3: "I wanted to follow-up to the phone message I left you regarding the upcoming Commonwealth Club discussion about Golden Gate Park. We [the City Fields Foundation] have a unique public-private partnership with Rec and Park; it's too bad the focus is on something negative, rather than the positive impact."

Asked recently whether she had coordinated her efforts to cancel or alter the May 11 Commonwealth Club forum with Gong, Ballard, Ginsburg, or Buell, or whether she had acted alone, Hirsch has remained non-responsive.

Hirsch & Associates, on behalf of brothers Bob, Bill and John Fisher, created the City Fields Foundation in 2006 to collaborate with RPD in renovating athletic fields with synthetic turf and lights. Hirsch and Associates are philanthropic advisors structured as a limited liability corporation specializing in managing family foundations.

The City Fields Foundation's Form 990-PF tax returns for 2008, 2009, and 2010 posted on www.Guidestar.comshow that Hirsch and Associates has received a combined total of $1,092,352 from City Fields across these three years as one of its five highest-paid contractors for professional services. City Fields is a private foundation with different IRS reporting rules than traditional non-profit organizations. Notably, during the same three-year period, City Fields Foundation reports it spent an additional $108,974 on "fundraising."

The City Fields Foundation's web site lists as one of its "Team Members," RPD employee Dan Mauer, a landscape architect and project manager in RPD's Capital Improvement Division who was paid $158,035 by the City in FY 2010 . Combine Ballard's $112,431 annual salary and Ginsburg's $205,788 annual salary, and you have a minimum of $476,254 in RPD salaries working on a public-private synthetic field project. Given the symbiotic relationships between Hirsch and Associates, the City Fields Foundation, and RPD staff, Ms. Hirsch clearly had a vested financial interest in influencing the Commonwealth Club's forum about Golden Gate Park.

Despite RPD's and its private partners' interference prior to a public event, the forum held on May 11 was cordial and respectful.

How Did RPD Go So Seriously Wrong?

On June 3 and June 9, as a forum panelist I submitted immediate disclosure requests for public documents to RPD's custodian of records, Olive Gong, seeking any and all documents between April 15 and May 30 regarding the Commonwealth Club's May 11 forum. On June 9, Gong claimed, "We [RPD] do not have any documents in response to your requests." Asked again, Gong provided copies of emails sent from Ginsburg, Buell, and Ballard stating each had "no documents responsive to this request," setting the stage for a Sunshine complaint against the RPD.

Unbeknownst by RPD staff, I had already received from independent sources copies of most of the documents I had requested, trapping RPD in an obvious lie. So I filed a complaint with the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, requesting a hearing and submitting proof of documents RPD claimed didn't exist.

At an SOTF hearing on July 26, Gong admitted the requested documents had once existed, but it was RPD's right to determine which documents it could keep and which it could delete. She claimed RPD's Record Retention and Destruction policy permitted RPD employees to independently determine when any document's "business utility" had ended, and could, therefore, be deleted under City Administrative Code Section 8.1, a bald attempt to assert departmental policies can supersede State law.

So much for RPD's public transparency, eerily similar to a drunk driver telling a judge that the drunk can define when he's inebriate. Over the summer, during a half-dozen SOTF hearings, Gong continued to assert RPD couldn't locate responsive records.

Task Force vice-chair Bruce Wolfe eviscerated RPD's reliance on Admin Code Section 8.1. Subsequent public testimony revealed that local and State agencies must keep records of all documents for a period of no less than two years and only duplicate records can be erased before then, per Government Code §34090.

Simultaneously, Ron Vinson, Deputy Director of San Francisco's Department of Technology, claimed his department could only retrieve emails that had NOT been deleted, since once deleted they couldn't be retrieved, nonsense if there ever was any. In a September 8 e-mail, Vinson claimed, "The Department of Technology does not own [and isn't] responsible for individual department e-mails and its contents. I can only give you what we have and that's what is in the system for recovery."

In truth, the City has a robust back-up system of e-mails necessary for anticipated lawsuits and disaster preparedness resiliency. The Department of Technology's false claim of inability to retrieve deleted e-mails left the door wide open for the RPD's abuse of the Sunshine process.

On October 21 — 141 days after the original records request was placed with RPD, and just two working days before the SOTF was expected to refer official misconduct charges against RPD staff to the Ethics Commission for enforcement — RPD's Olive Gong finally coughed up 14 pages of e-mails she claimed were retrieved from Department of Technology back-up tapes, which D.T. had previously claimed it couldn't retrieve. Gong could have provided me with the documents from back-up tapes in June, but the Ginsburg-led RPD chose to lie and stonewall for four-and-a-half months.

The train wreck of RPD's deceit — combined with the City Fields Foundation's and Hirsch's complicity to silence public debate — finally resulted in the SOTF filing Ethics charges against Ginsburg, Ballard, Buell, and Gong.

Hope Johnson, chairperson of SOTF, says, "Mr. Wooding's case is significant on several levels. This is the first time a City department eventually produced documents from back up files. Rec and Park's lack of compliance also hid City employee and commissioner attempts to sabotage public discussion of privatization of public land. These public officials signed non-public e-mails using their public titles in an attempt to sway the Commonwealth Club to bias a forum arranged by members of the public."

Greg Miller, a member of San Francisco Ocean Edge, a coalition of individuals and organizations concerned about impacts of RPD's proposed sports complex on the western edge of Golden Gate Park, testified during SOTF's hearing on October 25.

"The issue lies in the content of the records requested, including e-mails from City officials who sought to cancel or modify a scheduled Commonwealth Club discussion on public park policy. In justifying their requests to alter the forum, these officials sought to discredit both the qualifications and motives of forum panelists. There is no greater justification for the Sunshine Ordinance than to protect citizens' rights to free speech and public assembly," Miller says.

RPD lost its case on October 25 and has now been referred to the Ethics Commission, which has multiple options for enforcement and penalties, including recommending removal of public officers from their positions. Hopefully RPD staff will be punished for their actions, since Ginsburg, Buell, and Ballard are making a mockery of local government transparency and ruining the reputation of the RPD.

Feedback:wooding@westsideobserver.com

December 2011

 

Neighborhoods United:

A Ballot Measure Slate Card For The People Who Actually Live and Vote in San Franciscovote button

We the people of San Francisco have the right to
determine our own agenda for the upcoming election.

Surrounded by large donors, special interest groups, unions, think tanks, lobbyists, politicians, and City departments that no longer have the neighborhoods best interests at heart, this provides a voting slate for the people who live in San Francisco's neighborhoods. Neighborhood groups are truly the sleeping giants of San Francisco politics. When the neighborhoods unite and vote together, there is no local political force more powerful.

After much debate and careful thought, the San Francisco Neighborhood Voters Guide (SFNVG) recommends or opposes the following bonds, propositions, ordinances, and declarations of policy for the San Francisco neighborhoods.

Prop A: The School Bond YES

The SFNVG supports our children and our schools. This $531 million capital improvement bond needs 55% approval of voters to pass. The average increase to property owners' property taxes will be $29.42 for every $100,000 of assessed evaluation from 2012 through 2036.

The school bond will fix aging school infrastructure such as electrical, heating, water, sewage, building enclosure systems, roofs, walls, windows, fire sprinklers, playgrounds, fences, and gates — and will replace temporary classrooms — and $5 million will be devoted to "'green" schoolyards. None of this money will be used for operational purposes, however; the deferred maintenance of school facilities cannot be paid for by the bond.

Good bond stewardship is a major concern: Previous school district projects have exceeded cost representations made to the public at least three times in the past. Additionally, the proposed bond is too small to cover the cost of planned school capital improvements.

Prop B: Road Repaving & Safety Bond NO

This $248 million bond is a terrible embarrassment for San Francisco politicians. Only $148.4 million will actually be used for street repaving. According to Budget Analyst, Harvey Rose's analysis of Prop B, "The proposed GO Bond is estimated to have an interest rate of 6.0%, resulting in a total debt service of $437,249,617 over 24 years ($248,000,000 in principal plus $189,249,617 in debt financing), or an average annual debt service of $18,218,734 per year." Citizens are taxed and pay annually for infrastructure road repairs, but the City takes this money and pays for the bloated payrolls of City employees. Now, having made the choice to under-fund road infrastructure for the last 20 years, the City comes begging for capital improvement bond money to pay for maintenance repairs that they should have been performing in the first place. This bond does not guarantee that your street will be repaved — and asks citizens to pay a second time for what we have already paid for. Vote No on Proposition B and force City Hall to use our money as it was budgeted and how it was intended.

Prop C: City Benefits NO

Most folks agree that the City pension plan is on a path that is unsustainable, and major financial reforms are required to protect the City's pension system and the critical City services delivered to residents. Background: The San Francisco Employee's Retirement System is funded through a combination of employee contributions, employer contributions, and investment earnings from the retirement fund. As pension fund investments have declined, and employee contributions have not been adequate to offset costs, the City has had to make up the shortfall in the retirement fund. This offset is costing taxpayers between $300 million to $600 million annually in current dollars. If no pension reform occurs, the City pension fund is estimated to have a shortfall of $829 million in fiscal year 2015-2016.

Proposition C was developed through negotiations with Mayor Ed Lee, billionaire Warren Hellman, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, and City unions through a series of negotiations that excluded meeting with retirees and the City's lowest-paid employees. The pension agreement between the hand-picked negotiating parties increases employee pension contributions, increases retirement ages, requires employee increased contributions to the Retiree Health Care Trust Fund, and changes the composition of the Health Services System Board. Proposition C is expected to save $1.3 billion over the next 10 years.

The Proposition C pension savings are too little, too late. During negotiations, the City actually guaranteed future salary increases as an enticement to selected "public safety" unions to support Proposition C. The real knife in the back is the attempt by the Mayor's office to take over the appointment process of Commission members who serve on the Health Services System Board. Four of the seven commission members have traditionally been elected by rank and file union workers. Unfortunately, the same negotiation process that made this plan agreeable has also made this plan a weak step-child to Proposition D. Proposition C improperly bundles both health care changes and pension reform into a single ballot measure, which is what doomed Jeff Adachi's November 2010 Proposition B pension reform measure.

Prop D: City Pension Benefits YES

Proposition D is a charter amendment that would reform the funding of City employee pensions through increased pension contributions, increased retirement ages, and increasing the pension contributions for new employees. Proposition D is projected to save $1.7 billion over the next 10 years.

This charter amendment was placed on the ballot by Public Defender Jeff Adachi through signed petitions. Adachi also failed to meet with retirees who will be affected. Proposition D is a better rescue attempt at saving the City's pension fund than Proposition C. Proposition D exempts all City employees making less than $50,000 per year (37%) from making higher contributions. Second, City employee contribution rates will be placed on a sliding scale: The more wages you earn, the higher percentage of your wages you pay as a pension contribution. Proposition D requires a contribution up to 18.5% of wages for a City worker making $200,000 per year. Comparatively, Proposition C caps ALL employees at 13.5%. Proposition D does not address the unfunded mandate of increasing health care payments.

Neither Prop C nor Prop D addresses salary reform, a necessary precursor to pension reform. Neither measure addresses the 9,533 City employees (27.6%) who earn $100,000+ annual salaries, at a cost of $1.28 billion (gobbling 50.3% of the City's total payroll), which exacerbates the pension problem.

Prop E: Amending or Repealing Initiatives NO

Currently, once voters approve anything on a City ballot, even the smallest changes can be made only with another citywide vote. Proposition E tries to change this.

This is a laughable attempt by seven-month Supervisor Scott Wiener to pass a charter amendment that will allow the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors to change a proposition or an ordinance after the voters have approved it. Besides the obvious condescension to San Francisco voters, this charter amendment is actually asking voters to vote for a proposition that will allow elected officials to change what the citizens have voted for, including adjustments to revenue streams. Passage of Proposition E, very simply, would enable the will of voters to be overturned by the Board of Supervisors. Look upon Proposition E as a test of your own Intelligence Quotient (IQ): If you are dumb enough to vote for "giving away your vote," you shouldn't be voting. Note to Scott: Please stick to dog-walking and towels-for-nudists legislation.

Proposition E applies to ballot measures placed before voters by the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, but Wiener initially proposed applying Prop E to all measures, including voter-proposed initiatives. If Prop E passes, it won't be long before the Board of Supervisors changes Prop E to include signature petition initiatives, as Supervisor Wiener first proposed.

Proposition E and F fit with the disturbing City pattern of taking power away from the voters. The City's major funding needs are being served by non-voter-approved Certificates of Participation (COPs) and pre-approved revenue bonds, ranked choice voting (RCV) has diffused the citizens' vote for elected officials, and now Props E & F seek to amend or repeal the voters' intent. The Mayor, the Board of Supervisors and the Controller's office all seem to be working hard to subvert the will of the voters.

Prop F: Campaign Consultant Ordinance NO

Proposition F would modify the 1997 ballot measure that set reporting rules for all local political consultants. Consultants would be required to register if they make $5,000 in a year, instead of the current $1,000; they would have to file monthly reports; and the Ethics Commission could require electronic filing. There is nothing wrong with the current system. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

This bad-for-San-Francisco measure would also allow a super-majority of both the Ethics Commission and the Board of Supervisors to modify the consultant ordinance in the future. This is why Supervisor Scott Wiener really put this Proposition on the ballot. Just like Wiener's ill-fated Proposition E, Proposition F would allow the Board of Supervisors and the Ethics Commission to change lobbyist laws whenever it suits them. Proposition F is really all about controlling lobbyist legislation. The Mayor and the Board of Supervisors already have exclusive control over the Ethics Department's budget and now they want to be in charge of lobbyist laws.

Prop G: Sales Tax — The Safe Communities and Use Ordinance NO

This is a revenue tax that needs 66.66% of the vote to be approved.

San Francisco citizens were paying a 9.5% retail sales tax rate — one of the highest regressive sales tax rates in the entire state. Of this 9.5% rate, 1.0% was a temporary sales tax that was imposed by the state of California. This temporary State tax expired on June 30, 2011 and San Franciscans are now paying a retail tax rate of 8.5%. Never missing an opportunity to tax, San Francisco — under the leadership of District 4 Supervisor Carmen Chu and Mayor Ed Lee — is now attempting to add a half-percent gross receipts sales tax that would increase our sales tax to 9.0%.

The additional half-a-percent is expected to add between $60 million to $78 million in new revenue annually, and will expire after either 1) A ten-year period, or 2) If the State of California reinstates its recently expired sales tax. If the State sales tax is restored, the City would be required to repeal the Proposition G tax increase within a five-year period. It is possible that the City may suffer through a few years of 10.0% sales taxes with a reinstated State of California sales tax. This would be very bad for local businesses competing with surrounding cities with much lower sales tax rates. Under this scenario, San Francisco's sales tax revenue may actually decline, as more and more consumers turn to shopping outside of the City. San Francisco's poor will be the most hurt by these regressive tax rates, as they generally have few ways to shop outside of the City.

The revenue generated by the half-a-percent sales tax increase will be controlled by City Controller Ben Rosenfield, with the proceeds to be split 50-50 between senior citizen and children's services, and public safety employees such as police officers and firefighters. These groups each expect to receive $30 million annually, but the Board of Supervisors will only need a two-thirds majority to change the revenue-sharing sales tax allocations. This is especially distressing, since Safety employees may receive a much larger share of the proceeds over time than seniors and children's services. The sales tax increase may supplement already existing sources of funding for seniors and children's programs and public safety programs, rather than freeing up current safety programs funding for other desperately-needed and vital City services that remain unfunded, including routine pot hole and road repair maintenance.

Proposition H: School District Student Assignment Declaration of Policy YES

The San Francisco school system has never had a higher level of segregation. Rather than allow children to go to their neighborhood school, the SFUSD has developed a new admission policy that is requiring children to attend schools in zones that span the City.

Prop H is a non-binding Declaration of Policy requesting that neighborhood children be given preference to attend their neighborhood school. Prop H states the following:

"Every family in every San Francisco neighborhood should have the opportunity to send their children to a quality neighborhood school. The system for assigning children to schools should give the highest priority to the proximity of the child to the school."

George Wooding San Francisco Neighborhood Voting Guide. Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com

November 2011

 

Ranked-Choice Voting:

Turning Losers Into Winners2011 vote graphic

After nine years, most San Francisco voters still do not understand Ranked Choice Voting (RCV).

In 2002, San Francisco voters passed Proposition A, a charter amendment that requires the City to use ranked choice voting to eliminate run-off elections that San Francisco had traditionally used for electing the Mayor, City Attorney, District Attorney, Public Defender, Sheriff, Assessor-Recorder, Treasurer, and Board of Supervisors.

Supporters of RCV felt it would save the City money by disposing of "costly" run-off elections with notoriously low voter turn-out in December. Former City Controller Ed Harrington predicted at the time San Francisco would save $1.6 million annually by using RCV. Only then-City Supervisor Leland Yee voted against placing the RCV system on the ballot.

The big selling points for the RCV system at the time were that it 1) Created diversity, 2) Fostered conformity, and 3) Was less expensive than run-off elections.

This is what RCV is supposed to do: Each voter is allowed to cast a first-, second-, and third-choice vote among candidates running for office. The votes would be counted in rounds. If one candidate received more than 50% of the first-choice votes in the first round, then that candidate would be elected.

If no candidate received more than 50% of the first-choice votes, the candidate who received the fewest first-choice votes would be eliminated. All the voters whose first-choice candidate was eliminated would have their second-choice vote transferred to their second-choice candidate. As each candidate with the "fewest votes" is eliminated, their votes are to be redistributed among the remaining candidates — until one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. The first candidate to receive more than 50% of the vote ends up winning the convoluted process. The entire RCV process is explained at sfgov.org/election.

This is how political losers can easily become elected winners.

RCV election rules that San Francisco voters need to understand: 1) If you select the same candidate three times, only the first-choice vote will count; 2) Always use all three of your votes; 3) If you only vote one time and your candidate is eliminated, your vote is eliminated; 4) If you vote more than three times, none of your ballot counts; and 5) Your second-choice vote will be counted only if your first-choice candidate has been eliminated — and your third-choice vote will be counted only if BOTH your first- and second-choice candidates have been eliminated.

More confusing: The 50% vote majority that a candidate needs to win an election will NOT be 50% of the total votes cast in the election. For example, if a total of 100,000 first-, second-, and third-place votes were cast for ten candidates, the vote total will shrink after each candidate is eliminated. After the first five candidates are eliminated, hypothetically 10,000 first-place votes are now gone. To win the election, a candidate will now need to win 50% of the remaining 90,000 votes.

As the RCV process continues with the elimination of more candidates and the further elimination of first-, second-, and third-place votes, the winning candidate will need 50% of a smaller and smaller pool of votes.

Unlike the RCV system, in the election run-off system a candidate actually won an election with a majority of first-place votes. San Francisco voters could only vote one time, as there were no second- and third-place votes. If no candidate running for an office received over 50% of the vote, a run-off election was held in December. The candidate who received the most run-off votes won the election. This majority-rule voting system was formerly commonly called "representative democracy."

Times have changed. San Francisco's new RCV system allows a candidate with far fewer first-place votes to win an election. Contrary to the election run-off system, the RCV system rewards the candidate who is least objectionable to voters — not always the candidate most liked. Candidates who receive the most first-place votes in the first round often no longer win elections. Some refer to this new system as "settling for the lowest common denominator."

What happened?

In November 2000, San Francisco voters approved Proposition O, the Fair Elections Ordinance, by 52%. Among other things, Proposition O allowed partial public funding for Board of Supervisor candidates. If a candidate qualified for, and accepted, public funds, they had to stay in the race to the end, or had to pay back public funding they had received. The availability and acceptance of public funding means that larger numbers of candidates now run for elected political office. If several viable candidates run, a single candidate will seldom receive over 50% of the vote during the first round of RCV.

If one candidate does not win an election with 50% of first-place votes, the RCV's lowest common denominator system favors the candidate who can "race to the bottom" faster than their competitors.

For example, newly-elected District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen won by receiving only 11.7% of first-place votes cast in her district. After 19 rounds of ballot counting, she finally received 51% of the remaining votes by tallying 2,878 total votes. Less than 50% of District 10 voters even voted for Cohen. Cohen won because she was the best at attracting second- and third-place votes of candidates who were eliminated. Is this representative democracy?

Under the old run-off system, Cohen would have been eliminated immediately, because she only had enough votes to be in fourth place out of 21 candidates.

Conformity = Winning:

The new voting reality of RCV has changed the formula for winning elections by turning losers into winners.

Under the run-off system, politicians were rewarded by taking unique stands and developing innovative solutions to problems. Politicians tried to develop unique voting blocks of support to win elections.

Now, under RCV, politicians win elections by spending private and public money, building name recognition, and conforming on issues. If you want to attract your competitors' voters you need to have: 1) Some Mayoral job qualifications, 2) Name recognition, 3) The ability to raise public/private money, 4) Non-controversial positions, 5) The same positions on issues as your competitors, and 6) No qualms about pandering to the same voters as your competitors.

With no clear front-runner and a crowded field of candidates, the RCV system rewards chameleons and sheep, not wolves.

The RCV process was not needed in 2007 when Gavin Newsom won re-election with 72% of the vote against 13 other candidates.

On February 8, 2006, the Board of Supervisors passed Ordinance file number 051439, and amended the existing campaign and government conduct code to establish public funding for Mayoral Elections. The Ordinance was passed, according to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi to "Ward off the interests of big money and special interests." In reality, Ordinance 051439 should have been submitted to voters during an election, since it was conceptually identical to 2000's Measure O. The current RCV race for Mayor may well cost citizens between $8.5 million and $11.0 million, and some of the votes for less-popular candidates may end-up costing taxpayers over $100 per vote.

Former Mayor Gavin Newsom stated, "I feel somewhat uncomfortable with elected officials, and not the voters, approving a program that uses General Fund dollars to fund potential campaigns that could otherwise be spent on investments in the community."

The lethal combination of receiving public funds to run for election and the uncertainty of RCV means that several candidates will now run for each elective office. These are the current 16 candidates running for Mayor: Jeff Adachi, Michela Alioto-Pier, Cesar Ascarrunz, John Avalos, Terry Baum, David Chiu, Paul Currier, Bevan Dufty, Tony Hall, Dennis Herrera, Emil Lawrence, Ed Lee, Wilma Pang, Joanna Rees, Phil Ting, and Leland Yee.

In Oakland's first ever RCV contest for mayor, candidate Don Perata received 35% of first-place votes, while Jean Quan received 24% of first-place votes, in a ten-candidate field. Quan teamed with third-place candidate Rebecca Kaplan to wage an "anybody but Perata" campaign with their respective supporters. With seven candidates eliminated, Quan had 31% of the vote and Perata had 40% of the vote. When Kaplan was eliminated, over 75% of her 20,000 votes went to Jean Quan, and Quan won the Oakland Mayoral election.

This November's Mayoral race is San Francisco's first RCV election for mayor and the specter of the Don Perata / Jean Quan Mayoral race hangs heavily over a crowded field.

San Francisco's mayoral race is heading for a perfect storm of "consensus building, mediocrity, and horse trading." A recent poll of 700 likely voters conducted by the Beneson Strategy Group and commissioned by interim mayor Ed Lee shows that Lee will receive only 31% of the first place votes. This is bad news as Lee's first-place vote count may actually be under 30%. After watching what happened to Don Perata with 35% of the actual first-place votes, you know that selected candidates must be considering an "Anybody But Ed Lee" option.

Rather than seizing the initiative with the public and being bold, most of the front-running candidates are too afraid of offending one another' voters, for fear that they may not receive the other candidates' second- and third-place votes when candidates start being eliminated.

The real RCV election winners are the candidate's campaign managers, strategists and pollsters, as there has never been more private and public money available, or greater demand, for their services by so many candidates.

The Mayoral candidates who have accepted public money and have no real chance of winning must also keep campaigning. If they quit the race they would have to pay back the public funds they have received.

Losing candidates now have an opportunity to "shop" their votes to more viable candidates for future jobs and appointments. Think carefully if your first-place vote candidate starts requesting that votes go to a specific candidate. It will be interesting to see which candidates "lose" the mayoral election, but receive well-paying jobs in the next City Hall administration.

Now that a candidate who represents only a small fraction of City voters is capable of becoming mayor, San Francisco voters must be very wise with all three of our votes. At a minimum, vote for the Mayoral candidates who represent your interests and points-of-view. As intelligent voters, it is our responsibility to understand the vagaries of San Francisco's Ranked Choice Voting system.

Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com

October 2011

 

Road Repair Bond: NO, NO, NO

The streets of San Francisco are terrible. roadworkers

To fix their deplorable state of disrepair, the City is currently trying to convince San Francisco voters to "save the streets" by passing a $248 million bond measure this November.

Safe, accessible, and well-maintained roads are at the very core of services a city should provide to its residents. Whether you walk, take public transit, bike, or drive, people rely on a safe, smooth and accessible route to exercise, or to travel to and from work, schools, parks, libraries, or local shops every day. People need good roads, but San Francisco has done a poor job of providing them.

San Francisco City government has failed miserably in the last 20 years to meet even the minimum standards of road repair. In 1989, San Francisco had a pavement condition index (PCI) of 78. On a rating scale of one through one-hundred, with a 100 PCI being the best, a 78 PCI was a good rating. San Francisco had one of the highest ratings of large cities in the country. San Francisco's current PCI rating is at 64, which gives the City a "D" rating for road repair.

If everything goes as planned, and San Francisco voters approve the $248 million Road Repair Bond, City officials estimate we'll reach a new PCI rating of 66, according to Douglas Legg, Budget and Finance Manager of the Department of Public Works (DPW). If things don't go as planned, Legg warns that without increased funding for street repairs, San Francisco's PCI rating will drop to a 61 PCI rating by 2014, within only three years. The citizens of San Francisco have paid in full for street infrastructure maintenance and the City should have been able to maintain a PCI rating in the 70's.

San Francisco's low rating is no accident. The City worked hard to earn its current 64 PCI rating by deliberately deferring road maintenance in good times and bad. Just about 80% of the money that should have been spent on road repairs, but wasn't, was deliberately redirected to City employee salaries.

In 2003, the City had just 2,918 employees earning over $90,000 in total pay, excluding fringe benefits, costing $314 million. In 2010, the City had 11,838 employees earning over $90,000, an increase of 8,920 such employees, who now cost $1.47 billion, an increase of $1.15 billion, by the stroke of the Mayor's pen signing the City budget, and a compliant Board of Supervisors passing Annual Salary Ordinance increases. Clearly, the unfunded salary increases exacerbate our unfunded pension problem, largely driven by overly-generous top salaries, which isn't being addressed in pension reform ballot measures, or discussed by City officials. Thank you Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom for our terrible roads and our abundance of highly-paid, managerial employees.

Now, after years of deferred maintenance, the City comes crawling back to the voters with a $248 million Road Repaving and Street Safety Bond on the November ballot. This is what the road repair bond claims they will give us: We get to pay for our infrastructure repair for a second time by paying $148 million for street repaving and reconstruction; $7.3 million for street structure rehabilitation and seismic improvements; $22 million for sidewalk and accessibility improvements; $50 million for streetscape, pedestrian walkways, and bicycle lanes; and $20.3 million for upgraded traffic signals.

The actual real cost of the bond will be $440,749,617, after adding $189,249,617 in interest payments over the next 24 years, plus $3.5 million in bond issuance charges. Just $155.3 million of the $440.8 million — only 35 percent — will actually be used for street repaving, reconstruction, and seismic improvements.

If the City had just used the money that we gave the General Fund for the intended road repairs, voters would have saved at least $189 million in interest payments. Imagine if you paid cash for a car, and then the car dealership made you pay a second time by paying finance and principal charges for the same car over the next ten years. This is exactly what San Francisco is trying to do to City property owners.

In 2009, when the proposed $368 million Road Repair General Obligation Bond was being considered, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd wrote in his July 2009 newsletter, "I oppose this bond because I believe that our City has the financial means, but not the political will, to prioritize the maintenance and improvement of our streets." In 2011, Supervisor Mark Farrell stated, "I don't believe that we should be funding street repairs with debt." And, Supervisor Scott Weiner — who "strongly" supports the 2011 road repair bond — has stated, "It is unrealistic for the City to pay for road maintenance with existing resources." Apparently, Supervisor Weiner doesn't mind having the voters pay twice for road repairs, including the additional interest.

DPW is pretending that all of the proposed street improvement projects are capital improvements and are not considered ongoing or routine maintenance. General Obligation Bonds (GOB) pay for capital improvements and are not meant to pay for one-time maintenance projects such as road repairs. Also, the length of a capital improvement GOB should exceed the life of the bond debt. Let's see: This 24-year bond will fund road repairs that will last only 12 to 20 years. The road repair project does not even qualify to be a GOB, but if it passes we'll pay for it for 4 to 12 years longer than the life of the repairs.

City officials have been going all over town telling voters that the road repairs will last 30 years. The newly-appointed acting director of the DPW, Mohammed Nuru, told the CFSN that the Road Repair bond would last 30 years. Hmmm. Apparently, misrepresenting the life of maintenance repairs to voters must be the best way to be appointed acting DPW director.

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Legislative Analyst, Harvey Rose, considers the proposed $148.4 million in GOB's for Street Repaving and Reconstruction projects to be routine and ongoing when considering the entirety of the City's street system. Rose, therefore, "found that such projects would be most appropriately financed on a pay-as-you-go basis, without the issuance of the proposed general obligation bonds, which will result in long-term debt to the City." Translation: The road repair bond should never have been placed on the ballot as a capital improvement.

The Hidden Agenda: A large chunk of the Road Repair Bond is going to be used to fix-up Fisherman's Wharf so that it will look nice for the America's Cup yacht races. Let rich men play with their expensive toys, but not at the expense of the City's taxpayers. If you say that you are going fix the road infrastructure, please make sure that you repair the entire city.

At a time when the City is cutting funding for health care, education and emergency services, this road repair bond would spend tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a remodeling project in one tiny area of the City — Jefferson Street on the Wharf — in anticipation of the America's Cup race. The bond would direct more money to the Jefferson Street project than to all sidewalk, bridge, and overpass improvements combined, citywide.

According to a City-commissioned poll by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz and Associates (FMMM), current road repair bond polling of likely voters shows 34% voting "Definitely Yes," 21% "Probably Yes," and 11% "Undecided, Leaning Yes," which totals (potentially) 66% "Yes." The Road Repair bond will need 66.66% to pass. The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has also added a $513 million capital improvement bond to the November ballot. The Education Bond needs a 55% approval vote to pass. With both measures on the ballot, FMMM's poll shows San Francisco voters are far less supportive of either the education bond or the road repair bond.

Hopefully, the road repair bond will not kill passage of the school repair bond, since voters are leery of approving $761 million in new GOB debt across the two bonds. Most voters believe the education of our City's children is far more important than our City's deferred road repairs.

The Last Straw: Two years ago, on April 28, 2009, the Board of Supervisors (File 09-0404) approved the issuance of $42 million in Certificates of Participation (COPs) to finance the same categories of street improvement projects included in the November GOB. A year-and-a-half later, on October 26, 2010, the Board of Supervisors (File 10-1159) approved the issuance of an additional $48 million COP issuance, with the main difference being the specific streets and locations of those projects. Between these two COP's, we're already borrowing $90 million, plus interest, for the same type of work proposed for the November GOB.

COP's are classified as "non-voter-approved debt." They are reviewed by the Budget and Finance Committee, and then require a two-thirds vote by the Board of Supervisors. Most of the COPs have passed unanimously, with few of the 11 Supervisors ever voting "No." The public has no say or input into COPs, nor control of how many hundreds of millions in COPs have been issued.

COPs are long-term debt with high interest payments that should not be used for one-time maintenance projects such as road repair. The 2009 road repair COPs cost $42 million in principal, $83.5 million with interest. The soon to be issued 2010 road repair COPs will cost another 48 million in principal with a yet unknown interest cost. Together, both COPs interest and principal payments will cost San Francisco's general fund over $5.0 million annually. This COP money is the exact same money that should have been spent on road repair maintenance out of the General Fund and is now committed to principal and interest payments. If the City had simply done the right thing and not deferred infrastructure payments, the General Fund would be paying directly for road repair maintenance rather than paying unnecessary COP interest payments.

San Francisco's government has done a terrible job maintaining our road infrastructure over the last 20 years. The real question is: Should the voters now reward City government for doing such a bad job? Federal, state, and local infrastructure funds should be spent on purposes that were intended. As Supervisor Elsbernd stated, the City has the financial means but not the political will to prioritize the maintenance of our streets.

Please vote "Yes" on the Education GOB and "No" on the Road Repair GOB. After all, if the Road Repair bond passes on November 8, there's nothing you can do to stop the Board of Supervisors from issuing more street repair COP's on November 9 or sometime before the America's Cup race.

Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com

September 2011

 

sfpuc bill and monopoly moneyCITY HALL'S DEBT MARGINALIZES THE VOTERS

San Francisco voters have lost control over what, when, where, and how our City spends its borrowed money. Only 57.9% of San Francisco's $2.6 billion long-term obligations have been approved by the voters through General Obligation Bonds (GOBs) and parcel taxes.

The balance of the City's long-term debt is dedicated to Certificates of Participation (COPs), which are currently 28.5% of owed long-term debt and Revenue Bonds, which represent 14.6% of San Francisco's current long-term debt load.

COPs are actually called "non-voter-approved debt," while the City maintains that revenue bonds — which are bonds tied to the revenue actually generated or given to a City department through set-asides — are voter approved. In truth, the voters gave permission for City departments such as the PUC, Libraries, MUNI and the Recreation and Park Department (RPD) to issue revenue bonds, but voters have absolutely no say as to how these revenue bonds will be spent by each City agency.

For example, your monthly water/sewage bill rate will increase by 11.4%, effective July 1 for single family homes. This staggering rate increase has little to do with your water usage. Conserve all you want, but you are actually paying for the PUC's revenue bond debt to repair our Hetch Hetchy water system. The Hetch Hetchy rebuild was originally supposed to cost $3.6 billion and is now $900 million over budget ($4.5 billion). The PUC will soon start their sewage repair program called the SSIP, which was originally estimated to cost $1 billion and is now expected to cost over $5 billion. Our water and wastewater bills will increase astronomically and voters will have absolutely no say in any of this. Basically, revenue bonds mean, "just shut-up and pay."

The new COPs that will be issued without voter approval for the seismic upgrade of the Veterans War Memorial Building, Moscone West Convention Center upgrades, and the Hall of Justice rebuild — coupled with the revenue bonds which voters have no control over — will soon mean that SF voters will have input on over less than 50% of long-term debt decisions.

SF's politicians seem very content to have little or no public transparency, accountability, or input into long-term public financing decisions. Watch how easy it was to issue the seismic upgrade COPs for the War Memorial Building: On June 9 a COP report was issued by the Controller's office. On June 13 the COP was reviewed by the Capital Planning Committee. The Board of Supervisors Finance Committee will soon approve the COP for over $170 million in principal, and the Supervisors will then approve the COP issuance by December 2011.

Just one small problem: In November 2002, voters rejected a $123 million ballot proposal to seismically retrofit the War Memorial Building. Does Board President David Chui, the driving force behind this retrofit, have any respect for the voters decision in 2002?

"Big Brother" always knows better than us voters, and is actively trying to shove voter decisions aside. City Hall wants our money, but they don't seem to want us. Witness the audacity of Supervisor Scott Wiener's attempt to amend or appeal voter-approved ballot measures after only three years following passage, using a Board of Supervisors override vote. Weiner's proposed City Charter change headed for the November ballot shows great contempt for the judgment of voters.

Take a good look at the new PUC headquarters located at 525 Golden Gate Avenue. This Eco-palace was designed to be a symbol of the City's commitment to being "green." The project has been financially responsible, but did the voters really need a Taj Mahal of solar panels, waste water treatment centers, special furniture, and of course no parking because cars are bad? The six–figure-salary public employees who will work at this eco-shrine will park their cars a block away at the Civic Center garage. Counting the COP fees, principal, and interest — plus $17 million in PUC asset sales and $26.6 million in unappropriated Hetch Hetchy funds — the new PUC headquarters was expected to cost $430.6 million. Project cost overruns are adding millions to the final total.

The green design of the PUC headquarters now in construction is supposed to save at least $118 million over the next 75 years. A regular office building would have been less imaginative, but much cheaper. Why should City employees enjoy such a high-level work environment? Would voters have approved a project of this magnitude during such bad financial times.

With the addition of waterfalls in the lobby, LED "fireflies" on the building's exterior and sound-based artwork on the "grand stairway," voters are "saving money."

When my wife spends $300 at Nordstrom's Rack and then tells me she "saved" $200 because her purchases were marked down, I'm still stuck paying her $300 gambit. Likewise, the City frequently claims it is saving the taxpayer money — yet, we are constantly asked to pay for more services or cost overruns, and are stuck with the bill.

General manager Ed Harrington states, "It was actually the right time to build it [525 Golden Gate]. We had held off for some time because the costs were quite high. We took that time to scale back some of the more expensive items that didn't provide much return. When the economy turned around, it gave us the chance to get better bids and give the go-ahead to build it."

Prior to 1979 and the passage of Proposition 13, almost 100% of the long-term debt owed by San Francisco was either approved by the voters through general obligation bonds (GOBs), parcel taxes, or increases in property tax assessments, which were based on increased home valuations. With the passage of Proposition 13, all GOBs and parcel taxes suddenly had to be approved by a two-thirds super-majority vote. Homeowners were the big winners, since property tax payments were then based on the acquisition value of a house rather than on its assessed value.

Prop 13, "The Peoples Initiative to Limit Property Taxation," empowered homeowners to have a much greater say in the long-term debt that they were asked to pay. The new two-thirds majority voting laws allowed disenfranchised homeowner groups a much greater say in which long-term bonds were passed or not passed.

This was a very big deal in SF, where 65% of voters are renters. Renter interests do not always coincide with homeowner interests, and the burden of debt repayment was the responsibility of homeowners, not renters. For the first time in years, Prop 13 allowed homeowners to effectively represent their own financial interests.

This was a terrible financial blow to the City's property tax collections where revenues were on the decline. California municipalities had to turn to creative financing to off-set lost revenue.

In the very early '80s, a local law firm, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe devised a financing scheme called Certificates of Participation (COPs) requiring no voter approval; only approval of the Supervisors Finance Committee and a subsequent Board of Supervisors vote to issue COPs.

Desperate to replace lost revenue, municipalities and their complicit lawyers and judges almost immediately declared that COPs were legal.

This is the legal definition from the City Attorney's office on how GOBs are different from COPs. Take a very careful look and see if you can find any differences:

"COPs: Are a contract that says if we need a $100 of goods/services next fiscal year, and if you provide it, we will pay you $100. This would not be a 'debt' for constitutional purposes. Why? This obligation would be a 'contingent obligation', and the contingency has not occurred yet."

"GOBs: However, a definite undertaking today to pay $100 next fiscal year would be a debt for constitutional purposes. The triggering event is that we have incurred a definite obligation that would be paid out over a future year's revenues."

Although COPs are not considered to be debt under the state constitution, both COPs and GOBs are long-term commitments to pay back debt and both utilize rigid payment schedules over time. They are identical with the one exception that the state considers COPs to be a "contingent obligation" repayment in the future. How many angels fit on the head of a pin?

Bottom line: COPs are a state sponsored, instrument to create long-term, non-voter-approved debt at its pleasure and call this debt a lease/rental payment.

SF now owes $1.3 billion in COP principal and interest. This will soon double with the upcoming War Memorial Building COPs, Moscone West Convention Center upgrades, and the Hall of Justice rebuild that will all increase payments out of the General Fund by over $50 million per year.

All of this debt and interest eventually clogs San Francisco's General Fund, causing discretionary funds available to fix pot holes (among other infrastructure problems), to hire park gardeners, or to fund police academy classes, to vanish.

SF voters are marginalized by our politicians and City department heads to avoid public accountability. Our City officials would rather quietly issue "non-voter-approved" long-term debt than discuss the merits of projects with the citizens or risk voter rejection of GOBs at the ballot box.

It is long past time that voters place limits on the amount of COP debt that can be issued and how COP debt can be spent. Let the voters decide, not the politicians.

George Wooding is president of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council. Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com.

July-August 2011

City Shocker

The Political Game of Hiding the Long-Term Debt100 dollar bill puzzle

San Francisco's cash-strapped politicians are relying heavily on an expensive form of debt called Certificates of
Participation (COPs) to pay San Francisco's bills, perhaps hoping they can continue hiding this practice from voters.

The public doesn't know what COPs are, which seems to suit City politicians just fine. San Francisco construction projects that are either unaffordable, unpopular, or need to keep a low profile can be funded by COPs —without any public input or oversight whatsoever. Over a billion dollars in long-term City debt and interest have been issued with just the approval of the City's finance committee and our Board of Supervisors. Unlike issuing general obligation bonds or levying parcel taxes, COPs don't need public, two-thirds majority approval by voters mandated by the 1979 passage of Proposition 13. They don't even need public involvement.

COPs were specifically developed in San Francisco in the early 1980's as a hybrid funding scheme by a local law firm to provide a loophole to Proposition 13 borrowing requirements. The lack of public transparency and ease of approval proved to be irresistible to San Francisco's local politicians. COPs are now the City's primary vehicle for non-voter-approved debt.

Someone stole Mom's credit card: According to the May 18th Legislative Analyst report, San Francisco has the highest COP debt per capita, $735 per person, of 15 California jurisdictions surveyed. By comparison, the City of Los Angeles had the second highest per capita California COP debt at $393 per person.

Due to arcane accounting rules, the money borrowed by COPs is not considered to be "long-term debt." Instead, this borrowed money is lumped into "long-term rental/lease" payments. Thus, the City can borrow hundreds of millions of dollars by issuing blank-check COPs, and not have this money shown as debt on a balance statement, or on the City's Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) summarizing the City's detailed financial condition, a document which has become the nationwide paradigm for local government accounting practices.

San Francisco COPs are always reported as leases or long-term obligations. These long-term obligations usually consist of large upfront fees and two payments a year, a variable interest payment, and a semi-annual debt-service payment. Lease payments can be scheduled for as long as 12 to 33 years. The City also needs to pledge an existing City-owned asset as collateral worth at least as much as the money borrowed. If San Francisco subsequently defaults on its rent payments, the City may loose its pledged collateral. Confused, or outraged, yet?

District 2 Supervisor, Mark Farrell, a financial expert, stated in a February 11 Examiner article, "Masking the true cost of our City government is horrible financial planning. We have over $1.3 billion in non-voter approved debt (COPs) on our books right now. What really concerns me is the fact that we have over $100 million on our books where voters have rejected bond measures, but we go ahead and issue the debt anyway, or fund routine maintenance operations. It's costing us millions [of dollars] a year in interest payments. We need to have a clear, transparent dialogue with the public about what we are doing."

Supervisor Farrell isn't kidding. His is a long-overdue voice of rationality on a Board of Supervisors who have lead us into a financial mess over the past decade, including current and past supervisors and the approval of our last two Mayors, Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, who all avoided like the plague having this difficult conversation and dialog with voters

Until 2000, San Francisco COPs were used responsibly. This changed when U.S. District Judge William Orrick ruled that conditions at the San Francisco-owned San Bruno jail were unhealthy and that a new jail needed to be built. City voters twice rejected General Obligation Bond measures to fund the project and the City was forced in 2001 to use COP funding instead.

The construction costs of the San Bruno jail were $137.2 million. The actual cost to City taxpayers, including loan costs and interest, is $10 million to $13 million annually, for the next 33 years (until 2033.). The City is hoping to hold the final cost to approximately $350 million. This will mean that only thirty-nine cents of every dollar will have gone to actual construction costs, and the balance will go to interest payments and fees. A voter-approved general obligation bond would have probably cost at least a $50 million less.

COP funding costs San Francisco more to use than voter-approved general obligation bond funding. According to Nadia Sesay, Director of Public Finance, COPs usually cost 45- 65 base rating points more than general obligation bonds. For example, if a general obligation bond interest rate was 4.0, the corresponding COP interest rate would be approximately 4.55. This interest difference represents a huge amount of money.

General obligation bonds are a better financing tool than COPs because they create a new, voter-approved source of tax revenue to pay for all project debt service. General obligation bonds are considered to be the safest kind of municipal debt and typically garner higher ratings from the credit rating agencies and, in turn, cost issuers less in debt service payments and set-up fees.

COPs have lower credit ratings and higher set-up charges as non-voter-approved debt is considered less secure by credit rating agencies. COPs have to be paid entirely from existing General Fund resources or revenue that would flow to the City's General Fund.

Every penny spent on COPs takes money directly out of the General Fund — money that could have been spent on basic City services like fixing potholes (which street maintenance the City now wants to put as a general obligation bond ballot measure next November, kicking the can on basic maintenance down the road).

The main problem with general obligation bonds is that the unpredictable citizenry of San Francisco have to be convinced to pass ballot measures. During the Newsom administration, it became easier and easier to rely on COP funding, even though COP funding costs more, but was always a sure thing. Dealing with the public can be messy. Newsom and others before him feared embarrassing losses at the ballot box.

Incredibly, COP money does not even have to be spent on the project for which it was appropriated. COPs usually include a clause which states, "The project lease permits the City with the consent of the Trustee and Certificate insurer to amend the Project lease to release any portion of the Project or to add other property and improvements to the Project or to substitute other property for all or any portion of the Project."

Sound like a blank check?

Once issued, COP money can be spent anywhere. In 2005, the City declared a "state of emergency" when San Francisco General Hospital's (SFGH) two auxiliary steam powered generators started to fail. According to City documents, both generators could have been replaced for $7 million. Currently, the City has a generator-replacement date of January 1, 2012 and has already spent over $700,000 in generator repairs.

The City issued a COP for $36 million, which included combined fees, principle, and interest to be paid over a 16-year period. Five years and eleven months after the City-declared "emergency"— and $29 million over the initial replacement cost estimate — the back-up generators will be replaced. No wonder the City has a budget deficit, which can't be blamed solely on the need for pension reform.

Even worse, COPs are now being used for services and maintenance that taxpayers have already paid for, but have been deferred by the City. On May 5, 2009, then-Mayor Newsom authorized the execution and delivery of COPs to fix City streets, using the brand new Laguna Honda Hospital as collateral.

The Laguna Honda - collateral COP generated approximately $39 million for road repairs. Its COP expense fees cost an additional $5.6 million, and its twenty-year interest payments will total $38.9 million. The total cost to the public for this road-repair COP was $83.5 million. Approximately forty-seven cents of every COP dollar was actually spent on road repair, with the rebuilt Laguna Honda Hospital swinging in the wind as collateral.

It was approved because polling numbers showed a general obligation bond to fund the same work would not be passed by voters; a bond measure to do so was previously rejected by Supervisor Elsbernd as a long-term debt financing solution for one-time, or ongoing, needs. History will likely repeat itself next November, when voters will be asked to approve a new street, and pot-hole-fixing, bond measure.

This road-repair COP is an example of terrible financial waste and mismanagement for several reasons: 1) citizen tax dollars are already supposed to pay for annual road repairs; 2) it's stupid to use 20 years of long-term debt to pay for short-term road maintenance; 3) it costs $83.5 million to collect just $39 million for road repairs; and 4) San Francisco's General Fund will have to pay $4.2 million annually for the next twenty years, rather than using this money for road repairs.

San Francisco has to become more careful about COP funding. Citizens have a right to know what is happening with their tax money. The entire COP process needs to become more transparent and politicians need to become more responsible. COP money should be spent on capital improvements, not maintenance projects. And COP funds should only be spent on projects for which the money was originally issued. Due to the high finance cost of COPs and their drain on the General Fund, they should not be San Francisco politicians' preferred method of financing long-term projects.

San Francisco's bond rating is starting to decline due to unfunded pension mandates, overly aggressive financial forecasts that have not been achieved, and over reliance on issuing more COPs. San Francisco needs less long-term debt — under whatever rubric it is labeled — not more.

Supervisor Farrell should introduce legislation that will impose a requirement that voter approval be obtained prior to the issuance of COPs. If local politicians don't have the will power to enact this legislation, the voters should consider mounting a referendum—a signature-petition ballot measure—to restrict the City's ability to unilaterally issue COPs as long-term debt. Someone needs to take back Mom's missing credit card.

Feedback wooding@westsideobserver.com.

June 2011

The Wild, Wild West of Density Development multi-story development and crane

The newly-approved third revision of the 2009 Housing Element is about to turn the Westside of San Francisco into the wild west of density development.

After a lengthy collaboration between neighborhood groups, the Planning Department and interested community groups, the June 2010 draft of the 2009 Housing Element was issued and deemed acceptable by neighborhood representatives. An Environmental Impact Review (EIR) on the 2009 Housing element was completed and the public comment period was closed on August 31, 2010.

In February, 2011, the Planning Department issued its third revision of the 2009 Housing Element and this revision was approved at the March 24, 2011 hearing of the Planning Commission. The altered third version of the Housing Element was very different from what neighborhood representatives had been shown and agreed upon in the June second revision of the 2009 Housing Element. Many sections of the approved 2009 Housing element had been changed and are now unfavorable to San Francisco’s residential housing, one-family (RH-1) and residential housing, two-family (RH-2) neighborhoods.

Matt Chamberlain, the chair of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee, who worked as a neighborhood representative on the 2009 Housing Element states, “I was disappointed when I read the third draft of the 2009 Housing Element (HE). So much had been changed between that and the previous version that the HE Citizen Advisory Board (CAB) had worked on. Worst of all, these changes came after the EIR was completed for the Housing Element. The Planning Department did good work making sure that the early drafts of the HE reflected the needs of a wide range of residents. Then something changed, and they adopted their third draft… that so clearly favors developers and real-estate moguls over the people who actually live in San Francisco.”

The Planning Department has been disingenuous with the neighborhoods. The February version of the 2009 Housing Element disassembled the neighborhood’s RH-1 and RH-2 current zoning and attempts to apply “density zoning” to our neighborhoods. Density zoning is designed to create as many housing units as possible in existing RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods. The Planning Department has no idea how many new housing units will be built, what will be built, or where the units will be concentrated. The only restriction is that the height and bulk of housing will supposedly conform to the character of the neighborhoods that they are destroying. The Planning Department has lost its way.

The new density zoning will open the floodgates to bad and irresponsible planning throughout the RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods. Our tranquil RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods, which we love, will be converted into “density units” that will become profit centers for developers, the City of San Francisco, and the Planning Department.

Take a good look at your street and remember what it looks like. Ten years from now, many of your neighbors will have secondary units/in-law units, and some houses will be torn down and rebuilt into multi-unit buildings. Yes, the Planning Department will still be charging permit fees and solving the many neighborhood disputes that are about to occur.

The planning contradiction: Why has the Planning Department invested years of time and study of planned developments such as Parkmerced, Balboa Park, or Treasure Island — but spent zero time considering its huge changes to the RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods? Large-project developers work closely with the City to determine transit needs, schools, water availability, parking impacts, payments, the need of a project, the duration of construction, and a project’s density. There is an entire planning process and an EIR that needs to be completed for each project.

The Planning Department now needs to develop a supplemental EIR, acceptable density levels, and a comprehensive plan for the density zoning changes in RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods that they are trying to force on the neighborhoods. Better yet, why doesn’t the Planning Department leave the RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods alone and get rid of its ill-advised density zoning altogether?

If too many secondary units are built on your street — too bad — it’s not the Planning Department’s problem and maybe you should move, or build a triplex. If there is no longer any parking — too bad — it’s not the Planning Department’s problem and maybe you should sell your car. If mass transportation is poor — too bad — it’s not the Planning Department’s problem and maybe you should buy a car. If water rates are sky-high because there is less available water — stop taking showers. If too many people live on your street — learn to make friends. Worn-out roads, distant schools, fewer police and firemen per capita, loss of neighborhood character — Planning will now claim that none of this is its fault.

Lost in all of this new “density planning fever” is the simple fact that people purchased homes in RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods because they love the neighborhood character they live in. If we had wanted to live in crowded little boxes, we could have easily purchased one of the many existing vacant density units already available for sale.

The density concept was originally based on a planning formula to cram more people into multiple-housing units that are near accessible transit corridors, retail stores, and jobs. Generally, these multiple units have no parking, yards, or space between units. The Planning Department has extended its density formula into the RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods even though these neighborhoods have inadequate transit corridors, retail stores, or the jobs that are necessary. Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator and part-time housing planner, was one of the originators of the same density concept in Moscow after World War II.

Acceptable housing size is also becoming smaller and smaller. The proposed Booker T. Washington housing project located at Presidio and Sutter is planning unit sizes of approximately 380 square feet. At one point the developer was considering unit sizes of less than 300 square feet. Of course, no parking is planned, but the good news is that they will have bicycle racks that can hold up to 70 bikes. The obvious advantages of such small units are that rent will be less expensive and you don’t have to get out of bed to shave or make breakfast.

Members of the Board of Supervisors have until Wednesday, June 22 to vote against the revised 2009 Housing Element, or it will be automatically enacted by the City. The Supervisors cannot change any part of the housing element and it will take at least six votes to stop the revised housing element. It will be interesting to see which, if any, of our Supervisors takes a leadership role to vote down the approved 2009 Housing Element.

Fortunately, a group of 13 neighborhood associations formed a group called San Franciscans for Livable Neighborhoods (SFLN) and had the courage to file an appeal to the 2009 Housing Element on April 12. The appeal covers the Planning Department’s revisions that were made after agreements had been made with the neighborhoods and after the EIR was completed in August 2010. Parts of the appeal cover 1) Changes in the definitions of what constitutes a “major transit line,” 2) The removal of the new density zoning changes to RH-1- and RH-2-zoned neighborhoods, 3) The revision of the terms “neighborhood-supported” to “community-based” terminology, 4) The lack of sufficient water in San Francisco to support the Planning Department’s new density formula, and 5) The Planning Department’s failure to adequately describe how much housing it intends to create.

The Planning Department has alienated RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods throughout the City. By favoring the opinions of special-interest groups such as developers and a downtown social-engineering think tank over the neighborhood’s point-of-view, Planning has altered the June, good-faith agreement that had been developed with the neighborhoods. The Planning Department has clearly demonstrated that the input from outside special-interest groups is far more important than neighborhood input. The Planning Department has forgotten who they serve.

Either the Board of Supervisors step-up and vote the 2009 Housing Element down or the Planning Department needs to re-adopt the June HE revision that the neighborhoods agreed upon. The Planning Department’s new density formula does not serve the RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods well, and will lead to endless appeals and lawsuits.

George Wooding. Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com.

May 2011

City Hall Escalates War on Residential Neighborhoods

San Francisco neighborhoods that consist of single-family homes had better get ready for major changes in their neighborhoods.

On March 24, the San Francisco Planning Commission unanimously approved the 2009 "Housing Element." The Housing Element is the Planning Department's blueprint for what can and cannot be built in neighborhoods. All new Planning Department decisions will be based on this new planning constitution.

Current RH-1 (residential housing/one family) and RH-2 (residential housing/2 families) are based on single-family units being built on individual property lots. The single-family houses in our neighborhoods are almost exclusively RH-1 homes. Neighborhood planning decisions used to be based on lot size for single-family homes. The 2009 Housing Element will replace the current lot size designations and allow Planning to base zoning decisions on density, instead.

The new density zoning means that the Planning Department will now be agreeable to creating secondary units/ in-law housing, or rebuilding housing as multi-unit housing — in single-family neighborhoods. Section 1.6 of the 2009 Housing Element states: "In setting allowable residential densities in established neighborhoods, consideration should be given to the prevailing building type in the surrounding area so that the new development does not detract from existing character. In some areas, such as RH-1 and RH-2 prevailing height and bulk limits should be maintained to protect neighborhood character." This language attempts to insure that homes with more separate units (density) are the same size as surrounding neighborhood houses.

The new density zoning will someday allow your neighbor to either subdivide their current house into smaller separate units, or tear down an existing house and rebuild it as a multi-unit house.

The Planning Department's Director of Planning, John Rahaim, states, "It is important to understand that the Housing Element is a policy document, not code. In order for the Planning Department to change the zoning classification, heights, densities, parking requirements, etc. in any part of the City, the Planning Code must be changed. Any such changes must be reviewed by the Planning Commission, and approved by the Board of Supervisors and the Mayor. The Housing Element draft is very clear that when we do propose such changes, we must do so after a public process involving stakeholders."

There is a bad feel to this massive switch to density zoning. The 2009 Housing Element has been revised three times, with the third revision being made public in February. Mr. Rahaim states, "Public comments were never closed," but the Planning Department made several revisions after the 2009 Housing Element environmental impact report (EIR) was completed. The final February revision included the new changes in density zoning to RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods, and added a huge number of additional single-family homes throughout San Francisco that will now qualify for density zoning.

District Supervisor Sean Elsbernd stated, "Rest assured, I have no interest in seeing the elimination of the RH-1 or RH-2 designations, and strongly believe it would be a mistake on Planning's part to do anything to repeal the designation."

Clearly, the Planning Department would not have gone to the trouble to add the potential for density zoning if they did not want it. There will now be a constant struggle to keep RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods from being overwhelmed with secondary units and multi-unit housing.

Autopsy: why the Planning Department decided to base neighborhood zoning on density, rather than on lot size. In 2008, Senate Bill 375 was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger. The bill was designed to have communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions by limiting vehicle miles traveled (VMT's). Approximately one-third of greenhouse gas emissions come from cars. Although San Francisco already has one of the lowest greenhouse emissions for a major city in California and the nation (we have no industry), the City will receive more State and Federal transit funds if it tries to reduce VMT's and create and design mixed-use, transit oriented, high-density housing.

So let's get this straight: Density corridors along transit lines are supposed to reduce VMT's and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. So why did the Planning Department convert to density zoning all of the RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods in San Francisco? Answer: The City hates the low density in RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods. The average property tax is based on a purchased home value of $357,000 and the density per lot averages about 2.1 people per house. Due to Proposition 13, collectable property taxes are very low in relation to the value of the house. The City wants to ruin/change the character of the RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods so that they can charge more and higher property taxes, since every new unit will have to pay a property tax based on current value.

MUNI — the transit element — is an underfunded basket-case featuring unreliable service, constant service cuts, an 8.5 to 7.5 mile per hour average speed, a $40 million annual shortfall in revenue, and is headed for insolvency. Approximately 38 percent of MUNI's revenue comes directly or indirectly from revenue generated by cars. Ironically, if there were no cars in San Francisco, MUNI would go bankrupt.

Who wouldn't want to buy a 850-square-foot, "density" condo with no garage for $550,000 on or near an undependable transit line? By the way: Your kid goes to school five miles away from your house, your new job is in San Mateo, and one-third of your 100-unit condo development is devoted to affordable housing. Your $550,000 condo is one of the affordable housing units. Your vandalized car is parked eight blocks away in front of somebody's house with a secondary unit, which no longer has a garage. Welcome to the future of density planning and the end of the middle-class family in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, in the RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods people are converting their garages into secondary housing units so that they can have extra rental income. The house across the street was just torn down and turned into a triplex that is 10 feet taller than any of the surrounding homes. The triplex can be larger because it conforms to the 40-foot height limit designated by RH-1 neighborhoods — even though every other house in the area is only 30-feet tall. The Planning Department will argue that this cannot happen, but unfortunately other homes in the neighborhood have already added a third story, and Planning will claim that there is a height precedent "in the zoning envelope" that is already developed. There is absolutely no parking, because most of the RH-1 parking garages have been turned into density units, more people live in your neighborhood, and the people who purchased housing near transit lines with no parking are using your RH-1 density-zoned neighborhood to park their cars.

Middle-class families can no longer afford to purchase RH-1 single-family housing because they are now competing with developers who want to build a second unit or rebuild the original house for clients willing to pay an additional $150,000 more than the middle-class family. The middle-class family will now either have to rent, purchase a much smaller unit that they will have to share with other families, or leave San Francisco. The City will eventually have low-income housing, some affordable housing, a lot of high-end housing — but little housing for middle-class people who have children.

The final betrayal of RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods by the Planning Department is really quite clever. Planning revised the term "neighborhood-supported" to "community-based." The "neighborhood-supported" designation meant that your neighborhood was the major stakeholder in defending the character of the neighborhood. RH-1 and RH-2 Homeowners Associations and their established neighborhood covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs) will eventually lose their right to self-determination of their individual neighborhoods to well-financed community-based developers. Unless your Homeowners Association has the money to hire a good lawyer, Planning regulations supersede homeowners' CC&R's.

By substituting the term "community-based" into the 2009 Housing Element, the document now states: "Any new community-based planning processes should be initiated in partnership with the neighborhood and involve the full range of City stakeholders." Why would the surrounding neighborhood stakeholders need citywide input from the developers, lobbyists, think-tanks, and non-profits that claim to be the community-based component?

Director of Planning John Rahaim explains, "The Planning Department has always included a broad variety of stakeholders in our work. We cannot deny anyone the right to speak about a project or plan. I do not believe it is appropriate for me to state that one point of view is more important than another. In each planning effort we must consider a range of issues, some of which apply to the immediate neighborhood and some to the City at large. The term 'community based' simply reflects this broader participation." Basically, this is a nice way of telling the lower income RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods that they are screwed.

The Winners: Developers; contractors; the Planning Department, since approximately 85 percent of its revenue comes from developer fees; The City, which may receive more State and Federal funds and more property taxes.

The Losers: RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods, Homeowners Associations, people with cars, middle-income families with children, and anyone who has to rely on MUNI as their sole means of transportation.

The primary goal of the 2009 Housing Element was to create 31,000 housing units in San Francisco and to reduce VMT's. The 2010 census reported that San Francisco has 31,131 vacant units, or 8.3 percent of the 376,942 total units. The City has approximately 30,000 illegal in-law/secondary units; between 2000 and 2008, only 80 of these illegal units were legalized and only 204 illegal units were removed. The new 2009 Housing Element revisions to the RH-1 and RH-2 secondary units — and the recent revision to add secondary units to housing in proximity to major MUNI transit lines — have opened the door to almost 70,000 potential new housing units. Why do we need so many new housing units when so many existing units are currently vacant?

The laws of unintended consequences are about to shine on the Planning Department. San Francisco's greenhouse gas emissions will increase rather than decrease. More people results in more greenhouse gas emissions. The average vehicle miles traveled will increase as the number of cars increase due to reliance on poor mass transit and job commutes. The City of San Francisco will become overbuilt when middle-class families with kids flee the City and vacancy rates continue to increase. Most importantly, the RH-1 and RH-2 neighborhoods will fight the Planning Department at every step to maintain our neighborhood character, and keep secondary units and multi-unit housing out of our neighborhoods.

Feedback:wooding@westsideobserver.com.

April 2011

Vocal Opposition Surfaces as CVS Plans Liquor SalesSite for the new CVS store

How will the newly-planned CVS pharmacy proposed for 701 Portola Drive — located about one block south of Tower Market — impact the surrounding neighborhoods?

CVS is planning to build a brand new drugstore at the site of the old Shell Gas station, now called Miraloma Auto Care. The completed CVS store will sell prescription drugs and a wide assortment of general merchandise, including over-the counter drugs, beauty products, film and photo, greeting cards, convenience foods, and … alcohol.

CVS Drugstore's plan to sell alcohol and have extended store hours until 11:00 p.m. has really irritated local neighborhoods, schools, and politicians.

Karen Wood, a member of the Miraloma Park Improvement Club (MPIC) stated, "The MPIC, with a constituency of 2,200 homes, opposes the sale of alcoholic beverages at the proposed CVS drugstore. There are already four outlets for alcoholic beverages on the Portola shopping strip: Two markets, a bar, and a liquor store. In our view, a fifth outlet for alcoholic beverages on this two-block shopping strip will result in increased illegal and nuisance activity in the area, and will present an opportunity not presented by the liquor store, markets, and bar for youth to shoplift or illegally purchase alcoholic beverages. Drugstore liquor sales will alter the character of this neighborhood shopping area, and not for the better."

Liquor is currently being sold at Tower Market, 635 Portola Drive, Miraloma Liquor, 691 Portola Drive, Miraloma Club bar, 749 Portola Drive and Miraloma Market, 755 Portola Drive. The Walgreens Drugstore located at 689 Portola Drive does not sell alcohol.

District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd stated, "As a resident of Miraloma Park, I will continue to do all that I can to support the Miraloma Park Improvement Club in their efforts on this issue."

Carmelo Sgarlato, principal of the nearby San Francisco School of the Arts, stated, "As a principal of two high schools in the area, drinking alcohol is a big problem and another vendor of such is not what I would like to see in the neighborhood. Ninety-eight percent of our kids do the right thing, but there are those who don't, and shoplifting alcohol, cough syrup, and other items that can get students high are a problem that we must deal with."

William Sifferman, Chief of Juvenile Probation at the Youth Guidance Center, and Police Captain Louis Cassanego of the Ingleside Station are also opposed to the CVS Drugstore selling alcohol — especially after dark.

At this time, CVS has not applied for a liquor license at 701 Portola Drive.

In San Francisco, the concentration of businesses with liquor licenses does not always matter. San Francisco receives more than twice the average statewide number of liquor licenses. The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) states in Section 23817.4: The legislature finds and declares that the public welfare and morals require that there will be a limitation on the number of premises licensed for off sale wine and beer.

ABC section 23817.5 states that regulators will allow one license for every 2,500 inhabitants of a county. The Loophole: San Francisco is both a City and a County and this allows the ABC to issue at least one liquor license for every 1,250 inhabitants.

San Francisco is drenched in liquor licenses and alcohol. A June 30, 2010 report by the Lewin Group titled, "The Annual Cost of Alcohol to San Francisco" concluded that the cost of providing medical care for people with alcohol-related illness, treatment and prevention costs, costs to the law enforcement system, costs resulting from alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and other injuries, and the indirect costs associated with disability cost San Francisco approximately $17.7 million in un-reimbursed alcohol attributable costs.

Based on California alcohol consumption in 2007, the study estimates the annual per capita consumption to be 2.34 gallons, with 1.07 gallons being consumed in the form of beer, 0.55 in wine, and 0.72 in distilled spirits. This is equal to 499 annual drinks or roughly 228 beers, 117 glasses of wine and 154 glasses of distilled spirits. The study estimates that 356,837,146 alcoholic drinks were consumed in San Francisco in 2009.

San Francisco has banned the sales of all tobacco-related products in pharmacies. As Supervisor Eric Mar, a co-sponsor of the ban stated, "Cigarettes and pharmacies don't mix. Pharmacies should promote healing and protect our health." It is hypocritical that the same rationale and logic has not been applied to alcohol sales in pharmacies.

The Consumer Value Stores (CVS) was founded in 1963. It is the second largest pharmacy chain in the United States, with over 7,000 stores in 45 states and Puerto Rico. CVS purchased the Long's Drugstore Chain in 2008 for $2.9 billion. Additionally, CVS Drugstores has a store on Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, and is planning to open stores on Portola Drive, Ocean Avenue, and possibly a store on Noriega. The Market Street CVS store does not sell alcohol.

CVS representative Dave Jensen states:

"We met with the MPIC board to present our plans for how we would like to operate our new store. We listened to MPIC's comments and concerns about this location and learned much about their neighborhood. This has been a fruitful and informative exchange that we would like to continue. It is important to reiterate that no final decisions about operations at 701 Portola have been made.

"We understand that MPIC has concerns about our proposed hours of operation and plans to sell alcohol at this location. We are seeking approval to operate from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. at this location to provide the community with convenient access to early morning and late night pharmacy needs. Also, CVS/pharmacy has a long-standing and successful track record across the nation of being a responsible seller of alcohol, utilizing tight security protocols, specialized training, limited product lines and a zero tolerance policy with regard to the sale of alcohol to minors."

CVS has agreed to continue working and talking with MPIC and other neighborhood groups to develop strategies that will mitigate neighborhood concerns.

Although CVS appears to be a responsible corporate citizen, we request that they limit their hours of operation to 9:00 p.m., and that they do not sell alcohol at their 701 Portola Drive location.

George Wooding. Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com.

March 2011

Vote “NO” on Rec and Park’s Upcoming Parcel Tax

On August 15, the Recreation and Park Department (RPD) fired every Recreation and Park Director in San Francisco. This is one of the best kept secrets in San Francisco.

About 99.9% of the people in the neighborhoods had no idea what the RPD was about to do. The people who work in City government, the RPD, and Service Employees International Union — the very union that represents the Rec and Park Directors — knew, but apparently didn’t care enough about the Rec and Park Directors or the people in San Francisco to let us know beforehand. The firing of the park personnel needed to be kept as quiet as possible so the neighborhoods wouldn’t become upset. The Rec and Park Directors are loved by the public because the services they provide for our local parks are vital. Firing the Rec and Park Directors had to be done quickly and quietly.

The park needs of San Francisco’s citizens who pay for the parks are now secondary to the RPD’s attempts to generate more revenue from the parks.

RPD’s General Manager, Phil Ginsburg, always starts a speech by saying that he is “excited, lives in the neighborhood, loves the parks, visits them every day,” but then tells the crowd how the RPD has had its General Fund budget slashed $12.4 million last year and anticipates another $6.8 million cut this year. Ginsburg’s punch line is always the same: “RPD is broke and we need more of the public’s money.”

Being broke is not a good excuse for poor judgment, poor management, poor public notification, or poor prioritization of park resources. Ginsburg’s firing of the Rec and Park Directors was clearly contrary to the will and interests of the people who use the parks. Had we known about the firings beforehand, the public would have saved the Rec and Park Director’s jobs.

At the RPD’s November 15 meeting to privatize JP Murphy Park, Nicole Avril, RPD’s Director of Partnerships and Resource Development, stated that higher-paid RPD management employees were kept because of an RPD salary multiplier program that asked higher-paid employees to generate revenue of 5 to 10 times their paid salary. Responding to a Sunshine Ordinance records request regarding RPD’s multiplier program, Elton Pon, RPD’s Public Relations Officer, stated that there is no formal salary multiplier program. Pon stated, “To illustrate to the public the value of our employees, we will often refer to their salaries in comparison to the revenue that they are helping to bring to the department; oftentimes, it is indeed 5 to 10 times their salaries. It is a great talking point, but there is no formal program associated with it.”

Without the public’s knowledge and with no formal policy guidelines, the RPD has turned its entire administration into a sales force, and apparently, everything in the park is pretty much negotiable. Staff understand implicitly that they had better bring in their informal multiplier revenue, or they may be formally fired.

Let’s take a look at the RPD’s new priorities: The Mayor’s proposed budget (page 374) for Fiscal Year 2010–2011 decreased RPD services for children by $1.5 million — from $11.2 to $9.7 million — a 13.4 percent change decrease, and at the same time increased the RPD’s planning, development, and privatization budget by $1.9 million — from $300,000 to $2.2 million annually — a 633.3 percent change increase.

While the Rec and Park Directors (who are among the lowest-paid workers), and the employees who worked directly with the community were being fired, Ginsburg found the money to hire six-figure bureaucrats, friends of the Mayor, and fund raisers. The neighborhoods need someone managing the parks and running the tiny-tot and after school programs a lot more than we need another bureaucrat sitting behind a desk. This year’s RPD budget will be adding even more revenue-generating staff, and the parcel tax that the RPD will be peddling to the public in the November 2011 election will pay the salaries for even more “revenue-generating staff.”

If the RPD had prioritized children services, they could have kept almost all of the Rec and Park Directors on a full- or part-time basis. Worse yet, the RPD negotiated a 75-year deal to rent 60 parking spaces to the PUC at the Civic Center Garage for $6.5 million. To help offset RPD’s General Fund shortfall, the PUC agreed to make a lump sum payment of $3.3 million to RPD in fiscal year 2010–2011. In a July 28, 2010 letter, Katie Petrucione, the Director of Administration and Finance for the RPD wrote, “The up front lump sum payment from the PUC allowed the RPD to preserve services in the 2010–2011 budget. Without these funds, the department would have faced far deeper General Fund budget reductions and layoffs.” Two weeks after Petrucione’s letter, the Rec and Park Directors were fired.

Incredibly, the RPD made the parking deal with the PUC, but never received one penny of revenue from the $3.3 million in parking space rent. The entire $3.3 million was transferred directly into the City’s General Fund. The City Controller’s June 10 Discussion of the Mayor’s 2010–11 Proposed Budget document shows on page 14 that the PUC gave $1.8 to the General Fund under the long-term lease of the civic center garage, and on page 17 that the PUC gave an additional $1.5 million under non-recurring revenue transfers ($3.3 million total). The whole Civic Center parking rental was a scam to transfer PUC rental money into the City’s General Fund. When Petrucione wrote her July 28 letter, both she and Ginsburg had to have known that the RPD was misrepresenting that the RPD would receive the PUC rent money, and had to have known that the Rec and Park Directors were about to be fired.

George Orwell would be proud of Phil Ginsburg. With absolutely no employment experience in Recreation or Parks, Ginsburg was appointed the RPD General Manager by his good buddy Gavin Newsom in July 2009. Newsom must have ordered Ginsburg to start privatizing the parks by mid-July, two weeks later. The word “privatization” means that the RPD assets, which of course are owned and paid for by the public, will now be used to generate as much revenue as possible for the RPD — or the City’s General Fund — at the public’s expense. What few people understand is that much of this privatized money will end up in the City’s General Fund rather than in RPD’s budget.

Under Ginsburg’s short tenure, City parks and clubhouses, including JP Murphy Park and Golden Gate Park, are now viewed as revenue generators. The RPD has increased and expanded higher admission fees (arboretum); pushed poorly conceived, short-term, higher-paying contracts with private operations on park land, such as the Stow Lake Boat House; charged higher permit fees; scheduled more events on park land; licensed more vendors and services that compete with local private businesses (Dolores Park and Golden Gate Park); and finally, has aggressively pursued private donations, some of which come with strings attached.

If you make a large enough donation or pay enough rent to the RPD, you can build practically anything you want, anywhere you want, in Golden Gate Park. Watch what will happen with the proposed five-field, synthetic turf soccer complex in Golden Gate Park that is being pushed by the Fisher family.

RPD representatives have offered the communities surrounding JP Murphy Park three options to utilize the park; all three options are unacceptable. The West of Twin Peaks Central Council proposed and approved a resolution presenting a fourth option — to re-hire the Rec and Park Directors and restore crucial programming by having their salaries and services funded from either RPD’s planning, development, and privatization budget, or from the approximate $10.2 million the RPD is giving back to San Francisco’s General Fund this year.

The privatization of City parks and clubhouses is especially troubling, particularly because the San Francisco neighborhoods have always supported our parks. San Franciscans paid $110 million for the 2000 Neighborhood Park Bond and $185 million for the 2008 Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond. After parks and clubhouses like the JP Murphy Clubhouse are remodeled ($3.8 million was spent on the JP Murphy renovation), the clubhouses are quickly padlocked, and the parks are opened only sporadically because there are no Recreation and Park Directors. The RPD then labels the renovated facilities as “underutilized” and tries to lease out the clubhouses to non-recreational, profit-seeking businesses. Implicit with the passage of these capital improvement bonds was that the City would continue staffing the clubhouses with Rec and Park Directors. The RPD has repeatedly betrayed the voter’s trust.

The park privatization fiasco is a lesson in bad judgment and governance. The bad economy, coupled with the City’s overspending, created huge budget deficits. San Francisco is quietly taking away the money that the RPD is generating and placing this money into the City’s General Fund. The City then limits the RPD’s General Fund budget, which causes the RPD to prioritize staff who generate income over staff who serve the public’s recreation and park needs. Finally, Phil Ginsburg then completes the circle by telling the public how broke the park system is and how badly he needs more of our money to save the parks.

The RPD is going to place a parcel tax on the November 2011 ballot. The tax will mostly be paid by homeowners who are not even receiving the benefits of the prior bonds and taxes that they have supported. The RPD should rehire Rec and Park Directors and hire more gardeners, restore services, and stop privatization of our parks before asking the public for any more money. The RPD can’t even prioritize services to children.

Vote “No” on the RPD’s upcoming parcel tax.

George Wooding Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com.

February 2011

Neighbors Outraged: Privatizing Our Parks by Lease

To be privatized or not be privatized: That is the question.

On Nov. 15, the Recreation and Park Department held a meeting regarding privatizing the JP Murphy Park and its playground. The park is located at 9th Avenue and Ortega. The RPD’s goal of leasing out the facility to a currently unknown non-recreational tenant met stiff resistance from a standing room only crowd of concerned neighbors.

Westside neighbors are just becoming aware that the RPD fired or reassigned all of its recreation and park directors on August 15. The 100 or so recreation and park employees and directors were the face, heart, and soul of the RPD. These were the people who put the band-aid on your kid’s knee, helped with the tiny tot programs, and managed after-school programs, including baseball, football, soccer, and basketball. They sponsored Thanksgiving dinners. These smiling faces have all been fired. Attendees at J P Murphy clubhouse meeting

The RPD used the recreation directors to promote the passing of the $185 million, 2008 Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond. The bond money was to be used to renovate dilapidated clubhouses and playgrounds throughout the City. The renovated parks were going to be beautiful. It was assumed by all that the recreation directors would continue to provide services to the community in the new clubhouses.

If someone had told the public that recreation directors would be fired and recreational services eliminated just as soon as the clubhouses were remodeled, Proposition A would never have passed. Supervisor Sean Elsbernd was the driving legislative force behind Prop A. Rec and Park staff at clubhouse meeting

It was sad to hear a former recreation director apologize to the crowd that the fired recreation directors were sorry that they were unable to continue serving the public. The director went on to state, “The public uses recreation facilities hundreds of times more than they will ever use the police or fire department. Well-run parks with services add to property values, the character of the neighborhoods, and the value of people’s lives.”

JP Murphy Park is a perfect example. San Francisco spent $3.9 million of Proposition A bond money to renovate the JP Murphy Playground and Clubhouse. Carli Fullerton, the former recreation director of JP Murphy Park was close to tears as she talked about how much she loved the new facility she helped to design, the local community, and plans she once had for the renovated JP Murphy Park. After years of great service to the local community, Ms. Fullerton lost her job on August 15.

The newly renovated JP Murphy Clubhouse is now locked and closed to the public. People can still purchase a permit and rent the facility out for parties. The tennis courts and park playground are still sporadically available to the public. Supervisor Elsbernd stated at a Nov. 22 West of Twin Peaks Central Council meeting that he has not heard “One complained about the clubhouse being locked and that he personally uses the park.”

RPD management now believes that the JP Murphy Park is “underutilized” and they have developed a park privatization plan to lease JP Murphy Park. The RPD euphemistically calls this new for-profit leasing scheme “park revitalization.” The RPD is trying to lease out at least 24 of the 48 park clubhouses in San Francisco. After the meeting, Lev Kushner, RPD’s Assistant Director for Strategic Planning, casually mentioned that at least four tenants are looking to lease the JP Murphy Clubhouse.

It’s not that the groups that lease the parks are good or bad. The problem is that these private commercial groups take over large portions of the park at specific times and the neighbors (the public) who use these parks are not allowed to use the portions that are leased. The groups leasing the City parks often have nothing to do with recreation and are already working from an existing commercial location.

The RPD lease clearly states “The tenant shall have the right to shared access of all playground and garden space in areas surrounding the premises.” Additionally, “The City shall use its best efforts to avoid interfering with the tenant’s quiet and exclusive use of enjoyment of the premises.”

Whatever happened to the neighborhood’s rights to “the use and enjoyment of premises” of our own parks? We paid for these parks by passing the Prop A bonds.

The RPD is claiming that leasing the JP Murphy Park and Clubhouse is the best way to generate revenue for now “underutilized” facilities. It would be interesting to analyze what percent of the fired recreation directors salaries were off-set by the tiny tots program and the after school latch key programs.

The RPD started leasing parks and clubhouses throughout the City in July, usually charging between $1.31 and $1.51 per square foot per month. It is doubtful that the JP Murphy Clubhouse will be leased for more than $1,500 per month, a mere $18,000 annually. The RPD will be paying for all of the utilities.

Interestingly, Katie Petrucione, RPD’s budget director, told the assembled crowd that they would need to come up with at least $40,000 to keep JP Murphy Park open as a public park. She didn’t elaborate on why $40,000 would be needed, if RPD will collect just $18,000 leasing it out.

She recommended that neighbors either: 1) Team-up with an existing non–profit organization, 2) Donate the money, or 3) Create a Park Improvement District (PID). A PID would mean that surrounding neighborhoods would agree to pay an extra tax assessment each year to pay for the park. PID’s would mean that the public is paying twice for a service that had already been promised: First through the Prop A bonds, and again with PID tax assessments.

The RPD stated that they wanted to work with the assembled neighborhoods before they sign a lease for the JP Murphy Park. This is a very good development, since the RPD usually asks for neighborhood representation only after they sign a lease. The RPD was sincere in its request for public outreach, but unfortunately the meeting sign-up sheet was either lost or taken, and the RPD now has no way of reaching meeting attendees.

The real question is how could the RPD be so inept to invest $3.9 million to renovate JP Murphy Park, and then remove the person who operates it and padlock it?

The RPD had a $12.4 million dollar budget deficit last year. It had to make hard budget choices and they made them. First and foremost, RPD’s General Manager Phil Ginsburg decided that the new goal of the RPD would be to privatize Recreation and Park assets and sell them off to the highest profit-seeking bidder. Second, the RPD staff would solicit donations from wealthy benefactors. Third, the RPD chose to remove lower-paid employees (saving about $2 million in salaries) who work with the community, but keep the higher-paid management staff and gardeners (costing $9.6 million in salaries).

This might have been a workable plan if any of these government employees had any prior business experience. The guy who owns the corner deli has more practical business experience than Mr. Ginsburg. Ginsburg is an attorney who worked as a Deputy City Attorney in the City’s Human Resources Department as chief labor negotiator bargaining union benefits and salaries. He was promoted to Director of Human Resources by his friend, Mayor Gavin Newsom, after sticking it to Service Employees International Union, and then promoted again to be the Mayor’s Chief of Staff. Newsom then promoted Ginsburg again in July 2009 to be the General Manager of RPD-— with absolutely no recreation and park experience. Park privatization is Ginsburg’s baby and he owns it.

Ginsburg must have thought that privatization was a brilliant move, but things are not working out so well for the RPD. They are currently stepping over twenty dollar bills to pick up pennies. Much of what the RPD has done has led to higher costs and little real profit. Many of the deals that they are closing will actually lose money. The firing of the recreation directors has led to a total disconnect between the RPD and the public it serves.

At the JP Murphy Park meeting, Nicole Avril, RPD’s Director of Partnerhip and Resource Development, defended the RPD’s new privatization policy of keeping the higher-paid employees at the expense of the lower-paid employees by explaining that higher-paid RPD employees are given a “multiplier” of up to ten times the value of their salary. For example, an RPD manager making $100,000 per year with an 8-X multiplier needs to generate $800,000 in money to justify their salary. The problem with this privatization formula is that managers will only be making decisions that generate the most revenue, not decisions dealing with the public’s actual recreational needs.

In the quest for profit and donations — and the rationale for their multipliers — the needs of the public are quickly forgotten. For instance, the RPD’s privatization has actually made them predatory. On July 15, the Recreation and Park Commission voted to let an expensive private preschool displace a free, 38-year-old City College parenting class at the Laurel Hill Clubhouse. The clubhouse was leased to Language in Action (LIA), a preschool offering nine-month terms immersing two- to five-year-olds in Spanish and Mandarin. LIA tuition can cost up to $14,000 per year. The RPD leased the Laurel Hill playground to LIA for only $1,427 per month, against the wishes of City College and the local neighborhoods.

“On the face of it, the RPD wanted to lease this property and they didn’t really care what the public thought,” City College Board of Trustee President John Rizzo stated. “The RPD cared so little about the public that it was too late once they were notified.”

If the RPD is so hell bent on privatizing public parks at the expense of public needs, voters will have to think long and hard as to why we would want to support the RPD’s proposed 2011 parcel tax or any other future bonds supporting the RPD. If the RPD is going to prioritize commercial enterprises, private donations and higher permit fees over public needs, don’t ask us for money.

The RPD can’t have it both ways: It can’t ask the public for bond money and subsidize for-profit companies, and then ignore the needs of the public. The RPD can change its budget priorities by simply firing all of the RPD employees who do not meet their salary multipliers and rehire the recreation directors who were fired. This would be a good step in the right direction.

If you love the parks and want to keep them public, please become involved by contacting nicole.avril@sfgov.org. Your efforts may hurt Ms. Avril’s salary multiplier, but you could certainly help keep JP Murphy Park from being leased to a non-recreational, profit-seeking business. The RPD will soon be leasing out other parks and clubhouses in our neighborhoods, and we need to be prepared.

George Wooding lives in Midtown Terrace. Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com

December 2010

The Theft of Golden Gate Park

The deal between the Recreation and Park Department (RPD) and the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to build a waste-water treatment plant in Golden Gate Park (GGP) does not comply with the City Charter, and is probably illegal.

§ 4.113 of the City Charter states:
“The [RPD] shall have the power to construct new parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, recreation facilities, squares, avenues and grounds, except as follows:

No building or structure, except for nurseries, equipment storage facilities and comfort stations, shall be erected, enlarged, or expanded in Golden Gate Park or Union Square Park unless such action has been approved by a vote of two-thirds of the Board of Supervisors.

No park land may be sold or leased for non-recreational purposes, nor shall any structure on park property be built, maintained or used for non-recreational purposes, unless approved by a vote of the electors.”

The proposed new, $109 million waste water plant meets none of the City Charter requirements and has not been voted on by the people of San Francisco. This fact has been conveniently forgotten by both the PUC and the RPD, and both agencies are trying to avoid the issue. Let the people decide.

§ 4.113 was specifically written in 1995 because citizens had tried for years to remove the Richmond-Sunset Water Treatment plant. This old sewage plant was located at the corner of Lincoln Avenue and the Great Highway, and was finally retired in 1994 after the opening of the Oceanside Treatment Plant.

The GGP Master Plan and the City’s General Plan also confirmed the importance of preserving GGP land as an open space, and called for the removal of the Richmond-Sunset Sewage Treatment Plant. San Franciscans fought for years to get the sewer plant out of GGP due to its “unique odor, noise, unsightly appearance and the commercialization of GGP’s open space.”

Voters were very clear in telling the City to stop adulterating park land when City Charter § 4.113 was written into law. People who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

In late 2008, Interim RPD Director Jared Blumenfeld invited the PUC to relocate its proposed waste water treatment plant in GGP. Blumenfield was willing to give up GGP land if the PUC would provide a higher grade of waste water called reverse osmosis, water infrastructure, and financial compensation. Sadly, the new PUC waste water treatment facility will be located exactly where the old Richmond-Sunset Sewage Treatment plant was located.

Blumenfeld was interim RPD Director appointed by Mayor Newsom on October 8, 2008. Blumenfeld sold off the park to the PUC by January 15, 2009; by July 4, 2009, he was gone. He said at the January 15, 2009 Recreation and Park Commission meeting:

“We will be asking (the PUC) for compensation and it’s a prerequisite before they’ll move forward, with extracting any groundwater, they need to compensate us for that and they’ll also have to compensate us for any detriment to recreational uses, and for the lease of the footprint of the recycled water facility. So I think there will be two streams of revenue that will help us in both the short and long term close budget gaps.”

The PUC immediately jumped on this deal because the GGP land was so valuable.

The Indians who sold Manhattan got a better deal than the RPD.

The new budget funding game in town is to have PUC rate payers pay for as many General Fund expenses as possible. Ever since Proposition E was passed in 2002, the PUC has had the power to issue revenue bonds without public approval; the PUC simply raises consumer water and sewage rates, with the Board of Supervisor’s rubber stamp approval to pay for their expenses.

The City is going broke, but the PUC is flush with consumer money.

The PUC had already planned to build its new waste water treatment plant right beside the Oceanside Treatment Plant located below the zoo. The PUC is now claiming that they did not have enough room at the Oceanside Treatment facility to add a reverse osmosis facility. Adding a reverse osmosis facility would turn a one acre facility into a 1.5 acre facility. Overhead pictures of the Oceanside Treatment facility clearly show that the PUC had plenty of room to expand.

The PUC is claiming that the only reason that they needed to build the waste water plant in GGP is because they needed the extra room to add the reverse osmosis facility.

The waste water plant located at the Oceanside Treatment facility was the PUC’s original first choice and could do everything that the plant located in GGP would do. The facility in GGP will actually cost more because of all of the extra piping that will have to be installed and maintained between the Oceanside Plant and the GGP plant.

Rather than being side by side, as originally planned, the two plants are almost 2.5 miles apart and four separate pipes will have to be maintained. This does not even consider the lost recreational value of the GGP land or its financial value.

The new GGP plant will have a life of 50 years.

GGP has always irrigated with inexpensive, potable (drinkable) water from wells that draw water from an aquifer underneath the park, but the PUC wants to change that. The PUC now wants to combine GGP’s well water with the pristine water that we receive from the Hetch Hetchy water system.

San Franciscans will be drinking this new blended water to comply with the State’s requirement to develop new water sources.

The reverse osmosis waste water that will be soon irrigating GGP will be six to eight times more expensive than the potable well water now being used, and will be a lower quality water. PUC rate payers will be subsidizing these escalating building and water costs as part of a new “blended” water rate for Hetch Hetchy and the recycled water. No one in the PUC or RPD seems to care what the project will cost the public.

The reverse osmosis waste water will allow the RPD to use its current irrigation system rather than having to build a second “purple pipe” system for recyclable water.The higher standard of recycled water will hopefully be good for GGP’s plants and animals, but this recycled water will likely filter down into the very aquifer water that will now be blended into drinking water, with substances such as pharmaceutical residue. The problem is that the old pipes still leak and it is not clear that they will be fixed.

City government, the PUC, and the RPD have already rigged the decision process in favor of building the new waste water plant in GGP. Citizens are being asked to voice opinions on a project that clearly does not comply with City Charter 4.113.

Is it asking too much to have our politicians, the RPD, and the PUC comply with the law? Golden Gate Park should remain a park and not be sold off for industrial uses.

The State water mandates for the PUC or the financial needs of the RPD should not supercede the voting rights given by the Charter to the people to protect and preserve Golden Gate Park.

This project needs a two-thirds approval vote by the Board of Supervisors and a citywide majority vote by the citizens before moving forward.

Contact the Board of Supervisors and urge them to vote against this proposed project. Let the people decide whether they want GGP to be an industrial park or a recreational park.

George Wooding, Midtown Terrace. Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com

November 2010

Laundry List of Dirty and Dumb Election Politics

It’s easy to see why San Francisco voters don’t always vote.

We are often asked to vote “Yes” on “No” by the very same government employees that we pay to solve the issues that we end up being asked to vote on. The Board of Supervisors (BOS) — the legislative branch — is required to be advocates for their constituency and to vote on legislation. The Mayor’s office — the executive branch — oversees and manages the City.

Neither branch of City government plays well with each other, and haven’t for a long time.

The dysfunction between the Mayor’s office and the BOS is so bad that Supervisor Chris Daly introduced ballot Proposition C, which will amend City Charter Section 3.1 to force the Mayor to “appear in person, at one regularly scheduled meeting of the BOS each month to engage in formal policy discussions.”

Did Proposition C actually need to be placed on the ballot? No. Do voters really need to determine if Supervisor Chris Daly should be spending more time with Gavin Newsom? Again, “No.”

Ballot Proposition E, the Election Day Voter Registration Charter amendment sponsored by Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, proposes that voters be allowed to register to vote in exclusively municipal elections on the same day that they vote. If you’re too lazy or dumb to register to vote before a municipal election, you shouldn’t be voting.

No wonder fewer and fewer people vote in San Francisco. “Yes” means “No,” and up means down. Heated political battles, personal feuds, and vendettas are casually thrown to the voters. Propositions are complex and contain hidden agendas, while intimidation keeps worthy propositions off of the ballot.
The Board of Supervisors and the Mayor’s office need to work together and do a better job of legislating San Francisco’s issues, and representing their constituencies. It should not be voters’ responsibility to both legislate and keep City politics out of the gutter.

Ballot Measure I, the Saturday Voting Act ordinance, wants citizens to vote on Saturdays, rather than on Tuesdays.

Both of these measures should never have been placed on the ballot. Now, real voters — the citizens who actually take the time to register to vote before elections and vote on Tuesdays — are going to have to decide how big a waste of time Propositions “E” and “I” are.

Proposition F is a charter amendment sponsored by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. Elsbernd wants to alter the selection process for the seven-member Health Service System’s board of directors. Three of the board members are appointed, and the four elected board members are currently serving five-year, overlapping terms to ensure that at least three Board members are knowledgeable and experienced in any given year.

Proposition F was designed to have board member terms expire in pairs and be elected in the same year.

Huh?

The City Controller’s Office states that City savings could be $30,000 per year, starting in 2016 (in Controller–speak, this means that the City will lose money). Why is this a Charter amendment, and why was it placed on the ballot? Vote No.

Proposition H has almost nothing to do with the voters, or even with San Francisco. On June 15, Prop H was placed on the ballot with a single stroke of the pen by Mayor Newsom. Prop H amends the San Francisco Campaign and Governmental Conduct Code so that elected City officials can no longer be elected to the board of a political party’s Central Committee. This is a one-horse town and the Democratic County Central Committee (DCCC) — which is controlled by former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin —runs almost everything.

Newsom and Peskin have had differences and on July 28, Peskin denied Newsom a seat on the DCCC. Peskin cited the DCCC legal council’s decision that Newsom was ineligible for a seat on the DCCC, because “the statewide lieutenant governor post that he is running for is held by a Republican — Abel Maldonado. If Maldonado was a Democrat, Newsom would be allowed a seat on the DCCC.”

The next day, Peskin grudgingly offered Newsom a temporary DCCC seat until November 2. If Newsom beats Maldonado, Newsom keeps his DCCC seat; if he loses, he’s out.

Why is an internal Democratic Party policy issue on the ballot? Don’t make the voters fight your battles. Vote “No” on Proposition H.

Party progressives — such as Supervisor John Avalos, labor unions, the Sierra Club, teachers, Senior Action Network, and the Tenants Unions — helped placed Proposition J, an ordinance, on the ballot. Prop J, The Hotel Fairness Initiative, closes loopholes in the hotel tax and will temporarily raise the hotel tax from 14% to 16% for three years. The anticipated annual $38 million to $45 million generated by closing the loopholes, and the hotel tax increase, will reportedly go back into the City’s General Fund.

The word “temporary” is the dirtiest word in the English language. Any time someone involved in City politics tells you that something is temporary, you know you are being lied to.

Mayor Newsom called Prop J “a job-killing tax that will harm the tourism business,” and promptly introduced Proposition K to confuse voters and kill Proposition J. The provisions in Newsom’s Proposition K are almost identical to Proposition J — with one glaring exception: Proposition K keeps the hotel tax at 14% and adds a “poison pill” that states, “In the event that another measure on the November 2, 2010 ballot seeks to affect the overall rate of the Transient Occupancy Tax, any provisions of the other measure increasing the rate of tax or adding an additional surcharge shall be deemed to be in conflict with this measure. In the event that this measure receives a greater number of affirmative votes, the provisions of the other measure increasing the rate of tax or adding an additional surcharge shall be null and void, and the rate of tax plus all surcharges shall remain 14 percent.”

Newsom is using dirty and deceptive political tactics, but he happens to be right: Higher hotel taxes will hurt the City’s tourism business and generate less-than-expected revenue. Vote “Yes” on Proposition K, and “No” on Prop J.

Mayor Newsom introduced Proposition L, the Sit/Lie, Promotion of Civil Sidewalks ordinance, which amends the San Francisco Police Code. Prop L will make it illegal for people to continually sit and lie on sidewalks for extended periods of time. Newsom believes that “Present laws that prohibit the intentional, willful, or malicious obstruction of pedestrians do not adequately address the safety hazards, disruption and deterrence to pedestrian traffic caused by persons sitting or lying on sidewalks.”

Not to mention the fear and anger caused to neighborhood residents and businesses by being continually threatened by the people they must walk by. This is a neighborhood character and quality-of-life issue. The police are doing their jobs, but the justice system is ineffectual and almost everyone cited is back on the streets within a day. Vote yes on Proposition L, as it has the potential to stop the bullying and intimidation of innocent pedestrians and local merchants.

Not to be outdone, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi introduced Proposition M, the Community Policing and Foot Beat Patrols ordinance, and gave Mayor Newsom a strong dose of his own dirty-politics. Proposition M would establish “a comprehensive foot beat patrol in all police stations.” Foot Patrols have proven to be crime deterrents and helped to create good relationships between the police and the community.

The SFPD is already using foot patrols when they can. San Francisco Chief of Police, George Gascon, stated, “Unfortunately, the Board of Supervisors placed a counter measure on the ballot, Proposition M, which calls for more foot patrols. It sounds harmless but you need to read the fine print. Embedded inside Prop. M is a ‘poison pill’ to override our vote on Proposition L/Civil Sidewalks, and frankly we can reduce crime without dictating police deployment through the ballot box. This is not the hallmark of a world-class police department.”

This is the “poison pill” language that Supervisor Mirkarimi used in Proposition M: “If section 2 of this ordinance is unenforceable because the voters approve, with more votes than this ordinance, a City ordinance (Proposition L) at the November 2, 2010 election that bans lying or sitting on public sidewalks, then it is the voter’s intent that the balance of this ordinance shall be enforceable.” This language means that if Mirkarimi’s Proposition M wins, Newsom’s Sit/Lie, Proposition L will be erased.

Another black-eye for City politics. Vote yes on Proposition L and No on Proposition M.

Finally, the worst example of bad governance on this year’s ballot came from what wasn’t placed on the ballot. The mayor’s office strong-armed the David Chiu-led BOS to negotiate away non-budgetary ballot measures without even a vote so that the BOS would receive a guarantee of $44 million in budgetary add-backs from the Mayor. Heretofore, San Francisco had a time-honored history of keeping the negotiation of budgetary items separate from non-budgetary items. Newsom wins this battle, but plenty of embarrassment and shame to be shared by all who were involved.

No wonder fewer and fewer people vote in San Francisco. “Yes” means “No,” and up means down. Heated political battles, personal feuds, and vendettas are casually thrown to the voters. Propositions are complex and contain hidden agendas, while intimidation keeps worthy propositions off of the ballot.

The Board of Supervisors and the Mayor’s office need to work together and do a better job of legislating San Francisco’s issues, and representing their constituencies. It should not be voters’ responsibility to both legislate and keep City politics out of the gutter.

Please remember to vote on November 2.

Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com

October 2010

Is Jeff Adachi Now Public Enemy Number 1?

Public Defender Jeff Adachi has been unofficially declared public enemy number one by San Francisco labor unions and City politicians.
Adachi had the audacity to place Proposition B, “The Sustainable Employee Benefits Reform Act,” on the November 2 ballot, against the will of City unions and local politicians.

If passed, Proposition B will force City union employees who are now paying nothing towards their retirement to make an annual retirement contribution of 7.5% of their income. [Editor’s Note: In the 1990’s, the City picked up paying retirement contributions for employees in lieu of giving them raises.] Police and firemen will have to increase their annual retirement contributions from an average of 7.5% to 10% of their base pay. Proposition B will also require that City employees who are now paying 25% of their dependents’ health insurance benefits to pay 50%.
City unions believe it is their right to negotiate pension contributions, salaries, and work rules with City Hall. Adachi altered this time-honored relationship by going directly to San Francisco voters with a ballot petition. He needed 46,000 valid signatures to place Proposition B on the ballot; he collected 75,614 signatures

The success of Adachi’s petition effort has scared the hell out of City politicians and unions for the following reasons:

1) Adachi went directly to the voters with his argument;

2) He did not bother negotiating with the Board of Supervisors, the Mayor’s office, or the unions;

3) He showed that one individual with enough financial backing ($314,295 in donations) working with volunteers can place a measure on the ballot;

4) San Francisco voters are prepared — even eager — to take benefits away from the unions; and

5) City politicians would be wise to start respecting the opinions of San Francisco voters over the opinions of union bargaining teams.

City government has always been San Francisco’s biggest industry. Our City of 844,466 people employs 37,277 full- and part-time employees — a ratio of one employee for every 22.7 residents. The cozy relationship between City government and its “recognized” bargaining unions is complex. Union-supported candidates are usually elected to office; in return, many City labor unions enjoy preferential access to elected officials, favorable contracts, work rules, and pro-union legislation.

The government/union relationship has generally been good for elected officials, good for City labor unions, but extremely expensive for under-represented San Francisco voters. If our elected officials won’t represent the citizens’ interests, ballot petition measures may soon become the method-of-choice for giving citizens a seat at the labor negotiation table.

The citizens of San Francisco support City labor and have been very generous. During the past 25 years, voters have approved initiatives — such as 2002’s Proposition H, which increased the maximum pensions for police and firefighters from 75% to 90% of their base salaries — that have either increased City employee benefits and pensions, or favorably changed how union salaries are negotiated.

We may have been too generous.

For many, but not all, job classifications, San Francisco has the highest-paid City employees in the country. The City can no longer afford the high salaries and unfunded benefit packages of City management, and safety employees such as firefighters and police.

Mayor Newsom—whose salary is $250,903 is only 29th on the list of highest paid City employees. Top earner, Charles Keohane, a former deputy police chief who earned $516,118 retired last year, cashing out stored up vacation sick days and comp time.

San Francisco’s pension problems are being caused by our highest-paid City employees. Between 2003 and 2009, the payroll for City employees earning over $90,000 annually has grown from $314.1 million, to $1.48 billion, increasing the number of employees earning over $90,000 from 2,918 to 11,981, a 9,063 increase. High-salaried employees represent one-third of the workforce, but consume 56% — $1.5 billion — of the City’s $2.7 billion annual payroll. The City has failed to limit excessive management salaries.

These salary figures do NOT include the additional 32%–36% annual health care and retirement benefits each high-paid worker receives. A $90,000 per year employee with benefits is actually costing the City over $120,000 per year.

The average San Franciscan working in the private sector is making approximately $74,000 per year, and many private-sector workers have to pay their own health care and retirement. Another 43,000 San Franciscans are currently unemployed. The City payroll, pension, and benefit packages are no longer self-sustaining.

The Double Standard San Francisco has been trying to reduce city salaries on the backs of its lowest-paid workers by demanding permanent salary and benefit concessions. Entire job categories — such as clerical secretaries and Recreation and Park Directors — have been eliminated in some City departments. Job standards have been changed to allow higher-salaried workers to replace lower-paid workers. Lower-paid union jobs are being replaced (privatized) by non-union workers who work for less money and fewer, if any, benefits. Job positions are no longer filled, or are turned into part-time, non-benefit jobs. Meanwhile, the higher-paid safety employees have taken temporarily-deferred salary increases, no permanent cuts in salary, and few job cuts.

Top City managers have agreed to furloughed work days and have been asked to voluntarily reduce their pay (very few volunteered for this salary sacrifice). Deferring salary increases into future years does not reduce the City’s pension liability.

In 2009, the 17,508 city employees earning less than $60,000 in base pay (excluding overtime) were reduced by 1,966 employees, cutting $70.8 million from the City payroll; at the same time, the City added 779 employees earning over $90,000, for a payroll increase of $115 million. The City used the money gained from permanent salary concessions (cuts) from lower-paid workers or eliminating their positions entirely, to hire the 779 higher-paid workers. In San Francisco, this is alternatively called “pension reform,” or “balancing the budget.”

Former Mayor, Willie Brown, an expert in back-room deal-making with City unions, said it best in his January 3 Chronicle column:

“Over the years, the civil service system has changed from one that protects jobs to one that runs the show. The deal used to be that civil servants were paid less than private sector workers in exchange for an understanding that they had job security for life. But we politicians, pushed by our friends in labor, gradually expanded pay and benefits to private-sector levels while keeping the job protection and layering on incredibly generous retirement packages that pay ex-workers almost as much as current workers. Talking about this is politically unpopular and potentially even career suicide for most office holders.

“But at some point, someone is going to have to get honest about the fact that 80% of the state, county and City budget deficits are due to [increasing] employee costs.

“Either we do something about it at the ballot box or a judge will do something about it in Bankruptcy Court. And if you think that I am kidding, just look at Vallejo,” Brown wrote.

What Willie Brown didn’t acknowledge, is that Vallejo went into bankruptcy proceedings in large measure due to raises and benefit packages awarded to firefighters, police officers, and management employees that amounted to unfunded liabilities, not raises to clerical and lower-paid non-safety City workers.

The City’s cost of pension fund contributions and health insurance for active and retired employees has seen an 85 percent-change increase over the past five years, from $419 million in fiscal year 2004–2005 to a budgeted $776 million in fiscal year 2009–2010. In 2010, the City faced a $483 million budget shortfall and is expecting a $789 million budget deficit in 2011.

The City’s cost of pension fund contributions and health insurance for active and retired employees is projected to exceed $1.1 billion by fiscal year 2012–2013. The City needs to address these pension problems immediately, and address the $1.48 billion paid for $90,000+ annual salaries.

Jeff Adachi is right in trying to reduce San Francisco’s skyrocketing pension costs and unfunded health care costs. Someone in City government has to be brave and responsible.

Unfortunately, Adachi tried a shotgun approach that applies to the lowest-paid workers as well as to the highest-paid workers. The $90,000 per year employees can afford Adachi’s pension reform, but the lowest-paid City workers can’t. According to Catherine Dodd, director of the City’s Health Service System, “An employee using the City’s Kaiser Permanente plan for them and one dependent would see their monthly premium rise from $9 to $249. Employees enrolled in the Blue Shield plan would see monthly health care premium for them and one dependent nearly quadruple, from $121 to $473.”

This is what the 2009–2010 Civil Grand Jury wrote in its June 2010 report, “Pension Tsunami, The Billion Dollar Bubble” summary: “The Grand Jury is concerned that the public may conclude from our findings that all city workers receive excessive retirement benefits or gain from abusive pension practices. This is simply not true for the vast majority of city workers. The typical public servant who goes to work every day to serve the public will receive a modest pension after many years of service to the City. The Grand Jury and the public should be grateful for the dedication and hard work of a majority of city employees.”

If Adachi had just gone after the $90,000+ employees, he would win in a landslide. Even some of the City’s lower-paid workers might have quietly supported this pension reform. The San Francisco public is suffering through financial hard times. We love our firefighters and police — and don’t love our high-priced city bureaucrats — but we can no longer afford all of you.

If Adachi’s Proposition B fails and the City fails to implement “real” pension reform for higher-salaried workers, it won’t be hard to find 46,000 valid signatures for the next pension reform initiative aimed directly at City employees earning $90,000+ salaries.

We’ll prefer this before following Vallejo’s bankruptcy trajectory. Just ask Willie Brown.

Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com

Sept. 2010

A Parks Commission Gone Wild

George WoodingSan Francisco’s Recreation and Park Commission has long proved citizens have the right to be heard — but not listened to.

Anyone testifying before the seven-member Recreation and Park Commission (RPC) about keeping our park lands as natural open spaces should expect, in return, glazed looks, yawns, furtive texting, and attempts to appear to be listening thoughtfully. Whatever your issue may be, long before the RPC starts taking public testimony, it has already decided what it will do.

Welcome to San Francisco’s version of pre-scripted Kabuki theater.

The RPC’s new mantra is to make the Recreation and Park Department (RPD) financially self-sustainable through the creation of revenue-generating projects, events, and privatization of our park facilities. If you want to stop and smell the flowers, it’s the RPC’s job to approve making you pay for the privilege. This is completely sad, because the RPC was originally created to represent the citizens and be our advocates to the RPD and the Mayor’s office. Now, no member on the RPC listens to the public and all they want is our money.

San Francisco’s rubber-stamp RPC meetings are just a symptom of the Mayor’s Office having the power to select all seven RPC members. If you have friends in high places, or if your union or non-profit makes a major donation or concessions on your behalf, or if you personally make a large donation to Gavin Newsom, you, too, can be on the Commission. Citizens with little money and no political connections to Gavin Newsom on their resume need not apply to join this exclusive club.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi is sponsoring a November ballot measure — a City Charter amendment —designed to break the Mayor’s stranglehold over the RPC’s selection process. Mirkarimi’s amendment would change the appointment power so that the Board of Supervisors would appoint three RPC members, the Mayor would appoint three, and one member would be appointed jointly.

Let’s take a look at recently-appointed RPC president Mark Buell’s qualifications for the job. According to the Secretary of State’s campaign finance database, prior to being appointed to the RPC last January, Mark Buell donated $4,743.93 and his wife Susie Thompkins-Buell, the former owner of Esprit Clothing, donated $25,900.00 (the maximum allowable) during October 2009 to Mayor Newsom’s campaign to become Governor. On January 19, former RPC president Jim Lazarus suddenly resigned after seven-and-a-half years of service. Following his appointment to the RPC and becoming the RPC’s president just days later (a highly unusual coincidence) Mark Buell donated $6,500 twice and his wife donated $6,500.00 twice (in March and May 2010) to Newsom’s Lieutenant Governor campaign — for total giving of $56,643.93. Lazarus must have skipped making campaign donations.

Mark Beull’s RPC resume commendably lists him as a native San Franciscan, a graduate of UCSF, and a decorated Vietnam Veteran. Buell’s resume goes on to state “He has spent 35 years in both public and private real estate development.” This is a great resume for someone who is trying to develop San Francisco’s parks, attract investment capital, privatize park services, increase private donations, and create park enterprises that will compete with private businesses. If we want to turn Golden Gate Park into a Six Flags theme park, Mark Buell is probably the perfect man for the job.

At a recent Recreation and Park Commission meeting, it was difficult to listen to Commissioner Gloria Bonilla’s tortured speech about her concern for the environment, before she finally arrived at the “But, the RPD needs the money” part of her decision. Perhaps a new condition for RPC appointments should require acting lessons, since the RPC’s decision was never in doubt. Commissioner Larry Martin droned on about how the public needed to accept “change” for a pro-development decision. President Barack Obama hasn’t used the word “change” as often as Larry Martin did that night. Martin, a one-time, high-ranking Transportation Worker’s union official, was appointed by Mayor Newsom in 2007 and has absolutely no recreation and park experience listed on his official Commission resume.

If having no practical recreation and park experience is seen as a plus by the Mayor’s Office, current RPD director Phil Ginsburg is uniquely qualified for his job. Mr. Ginsburg served as a San Francisco Deputy City Attorney from 2000–2004 as the City’s chief labor negotiator, served as head of the City’s Department of Human Resources from 2004–2007, and was Mayor Newsom’s Chief of Staff from 2007–2008. On July 7, 2009 Ginsburg was appointed by Newsom as the RPD’s new General Manager, with absolutely no previous experience in managing park or recreational facilities. “Phil Ginsburg is a skilled manager and a natural leader who loves this city and our parks. We are lucky to have Phil on the job, and we expect great things from him as he leads this department into a new era,” said Mayor Newsom.

The “new era” mentioned by Newsom is based on a simple premise: The public pays for the parks, the RPD controls use of our parks, and then the public is charged again when they use park services. This is called privatization.

The RPC members routinely approve Rec and Park Department requests, whether for charging fees, decreasing Rec Center staff, or turning our parks into landscaped flea markets. Commission members simply did what Mr. Ginsberg and the Mayor’s office wanted them to do. The right decision for RPC members will always be to do what Ginsberg and Newsom want them to do. Fortunately, concerned neighbors and environmental groups who care more about parks remaining as natural parks than becoming “financial cost centers” are fighting back by challenging the RPC’s rubber-stamped attempts to make a profit.

No member on the current Mayor-controlled RPC ever has a differing opinion. An analysis of the last 21 posted commission meeting minutes (1/15/09 – 2/18/10) revealed that 100% of the 130 agenda items presented to the RPC were approved and 97.6% (127) of the commission votes were unanimous.

According to Supervisor Mirkarimi, his RPC appointment Charter change initiative “Will bring additional diversity and accountability to the Recreation and Park Commission.” Mirkarimi isn’t saying that RPC members appointed by the Board of Supervisors would be more qualified than Commissioners appointed by the Mayor. He’s saying that the Commission members will represent different points of view than the current RPC members appointed exclusively by the Mayor. Many people and neighborhood groups who love nature have been pushed aside, ignored, and disenfranchised by the current RPC’s and RPD’s “financially self-sustainable” mission. It would be nice to have an accessible Commission represented by many points of view, rather than just the Mayor’s point of view.

Supervisor Mirkarimi’s RPC appointment initiative merits consideration and public approval. If San Francisco voters want to bring the Commission back into balance and make the Commission represent San Franciscans, rather than representing the Mayor, we need to support Mirkarimi’s Charter amendment and have it placed on November’s municipal ballot. Let’s allow San Francisco voters to decide.

Please contact the offices of this legislation’s seven sponsors — Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi, David Campos, Chris Daly, Sophie Maxwell, Eric Mar, David Chiu, and John Avalos — and show your support for the RPC appointment Charter amendment.

It will be the first step in reversing the Kabuki theater we now have at the RPC, and in regaining control of our parks.

George Wooding, President, West of Twin Peaks Central Council. Feedback: wooding@westsideobservor.com

July 2010

Vote NO on A On June 8

Your vote is important, and matters.

Proposition A — San Francisco School Board’s “School Facilities Special Tax” — is the most destructive and divisive measure on the June 8 ballot. This Proposition is only “special” because it forces property owners to subsidize the public education costs of City renters. Quietly snuggled among Statewide energy measures, politician and judge races, and controversial City propositions, Proposition A is almost guaranteed to be overlooked by San Francisco voters.

Proposition A is a 20-year parcel tax that will cost homeowners $32.20 and landlords $16.10 per unit annually. City renters who comprise 65% of the population and have at least 36,500 of the 56,200 children attending public schools will not pay a penny. This new Prop A bond will fund unspecified school maintenance projects and seismic upgrades; without specificity, why should voters approve it? Approximately $7 million will be collected annually, but it will take a two-thirds majority (66.3%) vote to pass Proposition A.

Is this taxation without representation? Everyone loves children and wants all kids to have a wonderful education, even empty-nester homeowners. But why should property owners be asked to pay everyone else’s school tax bill?

The 2008 Quality Teacher & Education Act (QTEA), another recent parcel tax that helps pay for school teacher’s salaries, will cost each property owner $205.51 this year. Once again, the 65% of San Francisco’s population who rent and have many more school children will not pay a penny. Please note the QTEA parcel tax was passed by exactly 70% of the voters. This year’s Proposition A parcel tax WILL also probably be passed by approximately 70% of voters. Property owners will likely end up paying at least $237.71 more annually than renters for city schools.

San Francisco cannot stop the School Board from issuing bonds or taxes. Ever since the passage in 2001 of State Proposition 39, school boards have been allowed to place their own parcel taxes and school bond measures on the ballot. San Francisco’s School Board no longer needs the City’s permission to add school taxes and bonds onto City municipal election ballots. School board bonds only need a 55% approval from the electorate, not the usual two-thirds majority. Proposition 39 dictates that school bonds will only be used for repairs, construction, or replacement of school facilities and classrooms. Proposition 39 also stipulates no property tax limits, and has no provision to pass property tax increases onto renters. Additionally, school bonds cannot be used to pay salaries or operating expenses.

By adding Proposition A to the ballot, the School Board is severely hurting the chances of the passage of San Francisco’s Proposition B, a $412.3 million Earthquake Safety and Emergency Response Bond also on the June 8 ballot. Proposition B has been planned by the City for at least the last five years and is part of San Francisco’s scheduled capital improvement plan. San Francisco’s financially strapped voters are not in the mood to approve two separate revenue-generating measures. In the mind of voters, schools and children’s education are much more important than seismic retrofitting of fire stations. If Proposition B fails, the School Board will be largely responsible.

The SFUSD is also contemplating a much larger parcel tax for the November election based on the passage of the 2004 Proposition H Public Education Fund. The November parcel tax is rumored to be as high as $400 annually per homeowner. The SFUSD has neither confirmed nor denied this amount. Per Proposition H, The City agreed to an annual $60 million General Fund school set-aside in fiscal years 2009 through 2015. San Francisco had lots of money in 2004, but has a $483 million deficit today. When the Proposition H fund was created, its language stated that the last five years of General Fund contributions would be adjusted for the estimated decrease in the City’s discretionary funds. Needless to say, the SFUSD will not be receiving $60 million annually for each of the next five years. So, once again, the SFUSD will be placing another parcel tax on November’s ballot aimed directly at property owners. Not only will the November school board parcel tax fail, it will cause every other City revenue measure requiring a two-thirds vote on the November ballot to fail.

It’s hard to say if the San Francisco School Board is foolish, desperate, or both. The SFUSD has an anticipated $113 million deficit over the next two years and will receive only limited State funds. On May 21, the SFUSD even sued the State of California claiming that the State had failed in its constitutional obligation to support public schools. California currently has minimum education funding levels at about 40% of the State budget. There are multiple reasons that the SFUSD’s parcel tax model is no longer viable:

• We are living in a bad economy.

• Contrary to popular belief, homeowners are not wealthy. Many homeowners are either under-employed or unemployed. There are over 47,000 unemployed people in San Francisco (nobody knows what the real number is).

• Most retirement funds are down approximately 30%.

• Property owners are helping elderly parents and have kids in private schools or college.

• People who purchased a house within the last three years are paying extremely high property taxes, while their homes have often declined in value by over 15%.

• Homeowners are aging. Any homeowner over the age of 65 is exempt from paying the school parcel tax. This means that actually less than one third of the population will end up supporting the entire population by passing Proposition A.

• San Francisco’s renter population does not pay its fair share of public education.

• Proposition A will not provide enough money to solve problems it is intended to address. Does anyone really believe that $7 million a year will fix the SFUSD’s infrastructure?

• Proposition A does not specifically stipulate how, where, or when this new parcel tax money will be used, or what accountability measures will be utilized.

• It is unlikely that homeowners will approve two separate school parcel taxes in one year.

• A poor track record of oversight: This new Proposition A is replacing a 1990 infrastructure parcel tax that just expired. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, approximately $38 million of the $150 million collected over twenty years was misappropriated and spent on administrative and non-teaching salaries.

The traditional parcel tax model that the SFUSD has relied upon is near collapse. Proposition A is the last parcel tax that homeowners and property owners can reasonably be expected to approve to continually pay. San Francisco renters — apparently the SFUSD’s sacred cow — need to step up and pay their fair share of the school budget.

No City revenue measures requiring two-thirds majority passage will likely pass, while having to compete with a school parcel tax in either June or November. The SFUSD needs to create a fair model to generate revenue from the entire city and …San Francisco needs to figure out a way to stop the SFUSD from contributing to the defeat of its revenue generating measures on the ballot.

George Wooding, President, West of Twin Peaks Central Council. Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com

June 2010

Déjà Vu: Tackling the Breach at Ocean Beach

On January 11, 2010 Mayor Gavin Newsom declared “a state of local emergency to exist in connection with the severe erosion along the Great Highway, due to a series of large swells, windstorms and rain storms at Ocean Beach.” Parts of the Great Highway were slipping into the ocean, and parking lots at the bottom of Sloat Boulevard were disintegrating.

Yes, recent wind and rain storms eroded Ocean Beach, but this “emergency” was actually caused by years of City-deferred maintenance, inaction, and neglect. Much like what happened to the New Orleans levees, San Francisco has long known that parts of the Great Highway — especially the 3,000-foot section between Sloat Boulevard and Fort Funston — face being permanently washed away. It’s embarrassing that City officials have once again been caught off guard by a known and often recurring problem. Can anyone say “déjà vu”?

San Francisco’s problems with Ocean Beach are man-made problems.

San Francisco caused Ocean Beach’s beach-erosion problem by repeatedly increasing its size using landfill, and then building on the landfill. The current shoreline is a man-made extension. Between 1895 and the 1930’s the Ocean Beach shoreline was pushed at least two hundred feet seaward to promote urban development. Between the 1940’s and 1960’s, concrete debris, bricks, soil, and sand were used to increase the width of the beach and to form artificial bluffs. The City continued to increase the size of the beach through the 1980’s. The Pacific Ocean is now simply reclaiming the man-made beach and in-fill that has been extended into the Ocean.

The Real Problem

The City built the massive 16-year-old Lake Merced Sewage Pipe directly underneath (40 feet below) the Great Highway; it was completed in 1994 as part of the San Francisco PUC’s $200 million Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant. The Highway and parking lots were built on landfill the Ocean is now reclaiming. While the 14 foot diameter pipe was tunneled in harder native materials at elevations below the adjacent beach, it was located very close to the Ocean, below the southbound lanes of the highway. After ocean waves tore into the bluff that supports the Great Highway, the sewage pipe was just 10 yards — barely 30 feet! — from the ocean’s edge. Over 10 million gallons of Westside raw sewage and wastewater flow through this pipe following rainy conditions. The pipe takes sewage to the Oceanside Treatment Plant where it is partially treated and then pumped through an underwater pipe for release four miles out into the sea. As the shoreline recedes, there is a very good chance that the Lake Merced Sewage Pipe will either end up buried under the ocean floor, or exposed to the ocean.

Any rupture to the sewage pipe could cause a huge ecological disaster, involving millions of gallons of treated and effluent (partially-treated) sewage and liquid waste pouring into the ocean and onto the fragile coastline. Earthquake-induced liquefaction to the area may pose another distinct threat.

The president of the California Shore and Beach Preservation Association, Bob Battalio, who is a professional civil engineer, states, “The Ocean Beach landfill is not sustainable against the active shoreline. The real problem isn’t erosion, it’s that the City built crutial infrastructure on landfill and too close to the ocean. We once thought the Lake Merced Sewage Pipe was safe for the near term because of its low elevation and strength. Based on the City’s assessment of vulnerability, we were wrong.”

According to the Department of Public Works (DPW), some sections of ocean bluffs south of Sloat Boulevard have eroded by up to 70 feet just within the last year. The rock crown of the Southwest Ocean Outfall Pipe — part of the plant that discharges partially-treated wastewater four miles off shore into the Pacific Ocean — is also threatened by erosion. A 2009 report filed by the Pacific Institute shows San Francisco’s sea level rose eight inches during the last 100 years, but is expected to rise an additional four-and-a-half feet — yes, feet — by 2100 due to increases in ocean temperatures and melting ice sheets. Report calculations project that Northern California’s sandy dunes could retreat an average of 558 feet (186 yards) and cliffs could recede an average of 217 feet by 2100. Higher sea levels, coupled with high tides and fierce storms, will cause storm waves to make increasingly deeper inroads into the receding shoreline.

The City has responded to the latest Ocean Beach “emergency” by placing a 425-foot-long rock wall — approximately 12,000 tons of rock — south of Sloat Boulevard below the San Francisco Zoo. This rock wall is alternatively called a revetment or coastal armoring. The revetment starts at the base of the eroded beach area and extends up the cliff’s face. Ideally, sand will be added on top of the rock to increase the width of the Bluff. The Army Corps of Engineers — the same folks involved with the New Orleans levees — is continuing to dump sand near the coastal armoring hoping to create a beach and changing the ocean’s littoral (sand transport) current, but this “beach nourishment” approach is limited at this location because the Ocean’s littoral current is taking sand away from this section of shore; as the surrounding shores recede, this divergent zone is aimed directly at the Great Highway and the Lake Merced Sewage Pipe. This has the same effect as aiming water from a hose directly onto pavement 24/7.

The emergency Ocean Beach coastal armoring is a short-term, Band-Aid approach that will gradually fail. Coastal armoring can only be engineered to accommodate a certain storm size or rise in sea level. Coastal armoring of Ocean Beach requires regular monitoring and constant, expensive maintenance. Paradoxically, armoring is not as effective as natural shorelines at dissipating the energy from waves and tides. As a result, armored shorelines tend to be more vulnerable to erosion, causing increased erosion of adjacent beaches.

“As the sea rises, San Franciscans will be forced to decide: Should we adapt to the changing environment, or should we try to make it adapt to us? “

By the time the City actually develops a long-term plan for Ocean Beach, we may all be up to our knees in sea water filled with effluvium (odorous fumes given off by waste or decaying matter).

In July 1999, then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom voted with the unanimous Board of Supervisors by passing Resolution 698-99, which prohibited the expenditure of funds on the use of hard rock structures (such as rock revetment or seawalls) to stabilize conditions at Ocean Beach. This year, the City circumvented the Board’s 1999 Resolution by declaring an emergency and began expending funds on coastal armoring of Ocean Beach. The 1999 Board’s Resolution also called for the establishment of a long-term plan to address erosion at Ocean Beach.

In 2002, Mayor Willie Brown’s Ocean Beach Task Force issued Resolution 001-02-COE, which recommended supporting long-term solutions “through the planning partnership process.” The Mayor took three years before establishing, in 2005, the Ocean Beach Vision Council charged with developing a 30- to 50-year plan for Ocean Beach. The Vision Council must be wearing very dark sunglasses, since it blindly hasn’t even issued a draft report in the five years since being created. The DPW and the Recreation and Park Department are currently working on a plan with the Army Corps of Engineers. It is unclear how much of the Recreation and Park Department’s budget is funding the coastal armoring to protect City recreation and park land.

On April 19, 2010, Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, with the support of Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, drafted a new Board Resolution requesting a “comprehensive planning process be re-established to develop long-term solutions to the erosion problems at Ocean Beach.” None of these attempts at long-term plans are either drafted, followed, implemented, or completed. Nothing changes except the eroding shoreline’s increased risk to the 14-foot-diameter Lake Merced Sewage Pipe and the Great Highway above it, and risks to the Southwest Ocean Outfall Pipe.

It’s time for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), the City’s private think tank, to bring all Ocean Beach stake-holders together to really draft a 30- to 50-year plan for Ocean Beach. SPUR has the connections, knowledge, experience, and vision to develop a realistic plan. SPUR’s stated mission is to promote good planning and good government for San Francisco. SPUR’s Executive Director, Gabriel Metcalf, states, “If SPUR is able to help with the master planning, our role will be to ensure that all the different viewpoints get heard and that the solutions are really working with the full technical information about the ecological processes.”

Coastal experts such as Mr. Battalio are recommending a gradual surrender of the coastline to the Ocean. They believe that: 1) Infrastructure such as the Great Highway and the Lake Merced Sewage Pipe may have to be moved away from coastal erosion hazard zones; 2) Coastal armoring and structural measures should be minimized, with all armoring and rubble to be removed as soon as practical; 3) A sand management plan needs to be developed where sand is placed to maintain the beach and dunes; 4) The natural ecology of Ocean Beach’s flora and fauna needs to be re-established; and 5) There should be extensive Ocean Beach monitoring and adaptive management. This should become the template for the City’s long overdue Ocean Beach management plan.

As the sea rises, San Franciscans will be forced to decide: Should we adapt to the changing environment, or should we try to make it adapt to us? No matter what we do, there will be consequences down the line. It’s time to decide the fate of Ocean Beach and San Francisco’s endangered infrastructure. San Francisco needs to immediately develop a realistic, long-term plan, before the 14-foot-diameter sewage pipe and the Great Highway only 40 feet above it collapse under the weight of inaction.

George Wooding is the President of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council. Feedback: wooding@westsideobserver.com. More info: www.sfsurfrider.org/

May 2010

MUNI: Operators Salaries v. MUNI Riders?

It is time for City voter’s to get on the bus and sign District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s Muni Reform initiative. The initiative will force Muni operators to negotiate their pay scale and work rules by using collective bargaining. Elsbernd’s initiative is simply asking Muni’s 2,000-member transportation workers union, TWU-250A, to negotiate salaries like almost every other City union.

Muni operators do earn their salaries. They are not overpaid. They have an incredibly hard job and they generally do it well, but the union must share the City’s financial pain. Jim Lazarus, the vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce, states, “employees have to realize that they cannot keep getting paid the same when less money is coming in, without either cutting services to the public or laying off their fellow workers.” By failing to negotiate salary concessions, the union is demonstrating that the needs of the City, the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), and Muni’s riders are less important to them than their own personal salary and benefit needs.

Currently, driver salaries are determined by a non-negotiable Charter amendment which guarantees that the base wage of Muni operators must be no less than the average of the two highest-paid transit agencies in the country. Muni operators are currently making $27.92 per hour and this rate will increase to approximately $29.52, a 5.4% raise. Meanwhile, San Francisco has an anticipated $522 million dollar budget deficit for 2010-2011, and 17,000 city employees were recently given pink slips. Mayor Newsom is attempting to impose a 37.5 hour work week, which is the equivalent of a 6.25 percent pay cut. A vast majority of rehired City workers will be taking pay reductions and not pay raises. Well over 1,000 employees will probably either be fired or forced into early retirement. Starting on July 1, 2010 Muni operators will receive at least an $8 million increase in pay.

The TWU-250A is willing to sacrifice jobs for increased salaries and benefits. In a sad dog-eat-dog twist, a large majority of senior operators are willing to sacrifice the operators with less seniority. So far, 400 SFMTA employees have received pink slips, including approximately 100 pink slips sent to drivers.

Irwin Lum, the president of TWU-250, who is a very smart guy, saw the handwriting on the wall. In mid-February, Lum tried to negotiate $15 million in Muni operator contract concessions, but his membership soundly rejected the cost-savings plan. Lum is still trying to negotiate union concessions, but it is too late — the public relations damage has been done. Smelling blood, the SFMTA and City politicians have tried to make TWU-250A the poster child for what is wrong with the SFMTA. When it comes to Muni, the financially broke SFMTA and local politicians have little to brag about and much to hide. The union makes a convenient scapegoat.

For over 40 years, Muni operator salaries were determined under a non-negotiable salary formula which kept transit operators among the highest paid in the country. The determined wage was used as a wage “ceiling” and operators could not make more than this salary average. In 2007, then City Supervisor Aaron Peskin desperately needed to pass Proposition A, The Clean Air and Better Muni Reform Act. To pass Proposition A, the City negotiated an idiotic deal with the union by making the determined-wage-average a “floor” instead of a ceiling. This meant that the union’s wage negotiations would now use the determined-wage-average as a starting point for salary negotiations. Proposition A supporters felt that Muni operators would negotiate away “bad work rules” by receiving larger salaries. Trapped in an ironic catch-22, the SFMTA has been too under-funded to offer higher salaries to TWU-250A operators and has not been able to negotiate away any of the union work rules. In 2008, 82% of TWU-250A’s rank-and-file members approved a contract extension through 2011 that included no work rule changes.

TWU-250A’s inefficient and expensive work rules are a large part of Muni’s budget problems. Muni’s operators are not required to call in sick/out every day that they will be absent. This makes it impossible for Muni to know if its daily scheduling will work. Drivers don’t have to work 40 hours a week to earn overtime pay. If a driver works over eight hours in a day, any additional working hours are considered to be overtime. Muni cannot hire part-time workers because they don’t have enough full time workers. This creates a situation where operators will work at peak times in the mornings and evenings with little to do through the middle of the day. The sacred six rule: in each of Muni’s six division there are six senior operators who only drive only one run per week (2 hours) and spend the rest of the work week doing union organizing.

Elsbernd’s Muni Reform initiative will give the union a healthy dose of reality by: 1) Resuming a “collective bargaining” relationship with TWU-250A; 2) Wiping-out automatic annual salary guarantees; 3) Insuring that Muni operator health benefits will be equivalent to other unions and a majority of City employees for at least the first contract year; and 4) Eliminating all existing Muni work rules and having them renegotiated.

The SFMTA is broke and is operating in a state of fiscal emergency. The agency cut 10% of Muni’s operating service last year and is planning to make another “emergency” 5-10% service cut on May 1. Parking ticket rates and garage rates will be increased. Residential parking fees will also be increased from $76.00 to $96.00 annually. The SFMTA will soon be trying to extend the hours of San Francisco’s parking meters throughout the City. The declared fiscal emergency will allow Muni to increase customer fares and fees without undergoing the usual State environmental reviews. The SFMTA board needs to close a $12.1 million deficit for the remainder of the fiscal year and faces a $103.7 million projected deficit over the next two years. Driver wages and benefits account for about 25% of the transportation agency’s $768 million annual operating budget.

Think about this: For a second time in the last twelve months, the SFMTA — in a “transportation first” City — is considering reducing services and increasing costs. Riders who are paying higher prices for less service and have other options will stop using Muni. People don’t want to get on Muni, they want to get off. Twenty percent of the SFMTA’s revenue comes from riders’ fares; approximately 34% comes from revenue generated by cars. The rest of Muni’s funds come from a State fuel tax and San Francisco’s General Fund. The SFMTA will receive $36 million from the State this year in transit funding and according to SFMTA Director, Nathanial Ford, Muni service may only be cut by 5% rather than the planned 10%. Governor Schwarzenegger has repeatedly borrowed or stolen from gas tax funds dedicated to transit. The SFMTA has lost about $179 million in State transit funding over the last three years. There’s a hole in this bucket that can’t be fixed.

Please support and sign Supervisor Sean Elsbernd’s Muni Reform initiative. The initiative will provide SFMTA’s management greater flexibility in making difficult budget choices by allowing the transit agency to prioritize services for riders over salaries for drivers. If you are interested in signing the petition, learning more about Supervisor Elsbernd’s Muni reform proposals, or volunteering to help collect signatures, please send an email to sean_elsbernd@yahoo.com.

George Wooding, President, West of Twin Peaks Central Council

April 2010

Will Kids Go to School In Their Own Neighborhoods?school buses

Parents throughout San Francisco are about to receive a big helping of “be careful what you ask for.” In the midst of its worst budget crisis, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) is trying to overhaul its wildly-unpopular student assignment system for elementary and middle schools. Newly-developed admission policies will prioritize sending students to school(s) closest to their homes. The overhauled school assignment system is scheduled to be finalized in March.

After 28 years of social engineering, the SFUSD has come full-circle by finally determining that neighborhood children would benefit by attending their local schools. This simple change in admissions policy will help keep San Francisco children in their neighborhoods and keep schools at the center of their communities.

Under the three current SFUSD admissions proposals, a child’s home address will become one of the major criteria for determining which school they are assigned to attend. Children living in neighborhoods with good public schools will mostly attend good schools. Children living in neighborhoods with mediocre public schools will mostly attend mediocre schools. The SFUSD and the Board of Education will be responsible for determining the geographic boundaries or “zones” into which each school and neighborhood fall.

The selection criteria for school boundaries/zones will have more impact on the neighborhoods than the creation of the eleven Board of Supervisor districts. There will be winners and losers in this process. Some children will receive better educations than others and property values will rise in neighborhoods with good schools. Nobody knows how these borders will be determined.

There are three school admissions options being considered: First option, parents would be permitted to choose any public school in any newly-designated attendance area in which they live. Once a school is full, student applicant names would be placed into a lottery system. Academic performance would determine school assignments, with high- and low-achieving children being mixed. Second option, students would be kept in schools close to their homes. Parents would be allowed to choose other schools, but only if they have available vacancies. Third option, the SFUSD would segment San Francisco into large citywide zones. Students would be assigned to specific schools within a zone, but could express preferences for specific schools within a zone. The Board of Education appears to be favoring option three.

Prior to 1983, San Francisco school children mostly attended their local public schools with children from their own neighborhoods. Children who grew up in the same neighborhoods knew one another, and had a real sense of community, camaraderie, and belonging. Neighborhood schools were an integral part of their local communities. In a 1982 desegregation settlement with the NAACP, the SFUSD agreed that no school would have more than 45% of students from one ethnicity and that each school would have students from at least four ethnic groups. This was the beginning of 22 years of desegregation busing in San Francisco. Only a few lucky children were able to attend their local neighborhood schools, and rather quickly the schools and children became disconnected from their own neighborhoods. Little Joey would grow up attending a school miles away, never meeting the children who lived a block away. Schools became divorced from their neighborhoods.

In 1994, the Ho verses SFUSD lawsuit was filed, and eventually settled in 1999. This lawsuit settlement made it illegal to use any racial component in school assignments. To be in legal compliance, the SFUSD created a “diversity index,” giving students preference to schools based on social and economic factors, but not based on racial factors. The diversity index factored poverty, the mother’s educational level, English skills, home language, and academic performance of students at their previous school. Parents could apply to up to seven schools, and if there was space their child would get into one of those selected schools without being forced to use the diversity index. Under the diversity index system, children living near an excellent school have had an extremely difficult time being admitted to that school.

The SFUSD only applies the diversity index at schools with too many enrollment requests. A high-quality school has approximately 18 applicants for each
opening. Ironically, the diversity index increased choices for parents, but it has also resegregated many San Francisco schools — especially in poorly-performing schools that receive very few enrollment requests. Neighborhood children started congregating in schools with few enrollment requests, leading to resegregation. Much of the desegregation achieved from busing between 1982 and 2001 has been dismantled by the SFUSD’s diversity index admissions policy. U.S. District Court Judge William Alsap stated in 2005 that the SFUSD admissions system “has not achieved diversity in any meaningful sense. It has allowed, if not fostered, resegregation. The court has pleaded with the parties to fix the diversity index. They have not.”

Some Board of Education members have also blamed the new, high level of segregated schools on the current diversity index admissions system. Poorly-performing schools with few admissions requests have no built-in mechanism to ensure diversity of any kind. Stuart Biegel, a UCLA professor appointed to monitor the SFUSD’s desegregation efforts, found that in close to 50 of the SFUSD’s 113 schools, 60% or more of students in any grade were from a single racial or ethnic group.

San Francisco parents have had enough of the diversity index system, and are increasingly angry. Last year, 9,900 students (18%) failed to receive any of their seven school choices. Upset parents are either fleeing to private schools or moving out of town, leading to substantial lost revenue for the school district.

Complaints from parents; Board of Supervisors resolution #80935, which urges the SFUSD to reconsider the current school assignment system, and resolves that the SFUSD and the Board of Education should incorporate a geographic component in school assignments; and a 2008 Civil Grand Jury report which recommends that the diversity index be scrapped, contending that the SFUSD school assignment process is widely seen by parents as being unfair and factoring into San Francisco’s lower ratio of public-to-private school enrollments, all contributed to the demise of the diversity index admissions process.

The SFUSD’s new admission policies are only part of parents’ concerns. San Francisco public schools are facing an expected $113 million budget shortfall over the next two years, due mainly to a massive reduction in State funding. More than 900 city schoolteachers, administrators and staff are expected to receive layoff notices and many will not be rehired. Four-hundred school district positions, including 100 teachers, may be eliminated. Class sizes will be increasing; almost no summer school programs are being planned; the school year may be shortened; workers furloughed; and educational programs for art, music, libraries, and physical education will be downsized.

A good education is the most important gift we can give to our children. Revising San Francisco’s public school admission policies may put the school district back on the right track. Having children attend local schools will encourage the surrounding communities to support the schools through fundraising, donations, and volunteerism, and may slow the flight of families leaving the City or enrolling their children in private schools. San Francisco’s public schools need the support of the community now more than ever.

Contact the Board of Education quickly to comment on the three admissions proposals, but be careful what you ask for. We don’t need another helping of bad school assignment policies.

George Wooding, President, West of Twin Peaks Central Council

March 2010

Pastoral Meadows and Groves?

Paving Over Golden Gate Park

Can it really be that America’s “greenest city” is actually going to convert 2.5 acres of grass fields — one-half of Golden Gate Park’s western edge — into synthetic turf soccer fields? The same City politicians who spawn “green” spare-the-air-days, sorted garbage recycling, bicycle plans, higher taxes, and gardens in front of City Hall are quietly promoting this completely anti-environmental, and ironically un-green, Recreation and Park Department (RPD) project.

Golden Gate Park is special and San Francisco government’s selective environmentalism is hypocritical.

Even worse news for San Franciscans who believe that the western edge of Golden Gate Park should remain in a natural state, the SF Public Utilities Commission will be building a $120 million water recycling facility sometime after 2013, which will be located adjacent to the soccer complex. The combination of the recycling plant and the proposed soccer complex should erase any pretense of the western edge of Golden Gate Park ever again being dubbed “natural.”

The proposed synthetic turf soccer complex violates the SF General Plan, the Park’s own Golden Gate Park Master plan (1998), and the National Register of Historic Places application (2004). All of these documents state that the western end of Golden Gate Park is to remain pastoral, characterized by meadows (real grass) and surrounded by groves of trees (real trees). The RPD’s synthetic turf soccer complex will have a larger footprint (473,000 sq. ft.) than Candlestick Park Stadium.

submitted plan shows 6 fieldsThe RPD’s public project presentations only show that four synthetic fields will be built. After weeks of foot dragging by the City’s Planning Department, actual project approval plans were finally made public. The soccer complex plans approved by the Planning Department show that six soccer fields will be built, not just four. The City will add the other two soccer fields in the future. The enlarged synthetic soccer field complex will also feature 60 foot-high field lights, bleachers, new bathrooms with an adjacent concession stand, enlarged sidewalks, a maintenance building, and an expanded parking lot.

In their haste to get the Golden Gate Park synthetic fields approved, the RPD publicly misstated to several citizens groups and politicians that the synthetic turf proposal has a “California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) exemption.” A valid CEQA exemption would mean that the RPD does not have to perform an Environmental Impact Review (EIR) on the project. But on January 19, SF Deputy City Attorney Kate Herrman-Stacy told the RPD that they do NOT have a CEQA exemption and they must submit additional environmental information for the project. This makes sense when you consider that each field will be made from 30,000 to 50,000 ground-up rubber tires and then covered with plastic grass. The RPD now needs to do a complete EIR on this project.

The RPD also needs community support to install synthetic turf fields. The neighborhoods surrounding the Potrero Hill Recreation Center and Rossi Playground both stopped the installation of synthetic turf fields at their parks.

On May 15, 2009, a form letter email was sent only to soccer players and coaches telling them to submit a form letter/petition supporting the GG Park synthetic soccer fields or they would not be built. Of course, many of the contacted soccer players signed petitions and wrote letters, including children and soccer players living outside of San Francisco. These petitions and emails supposedly fulfilled the RPD’s “community support” requirement. Unfortunately, almost all of the 800,000 people who live in San Francisco and do not play soccer were not informed about the project, nor were they invited to submit petitions as the soccer players were. The RPD finally started conducting community meetings in November, which they staged using RPD-invited soccer players and coaches. But RPD seems to have forgotten that Golden Gate Park is everyone’s park.

SF’s RPD’s newly-appointed General Manager, Phil Ginsberg (Mayor Newsom’s former Chief of Staff), is pushing hard for the synthetic turf fields to be installed. Ginsberg, appointed on July 7 after his predecessor, Yomi Agunbiade, resigned, claims that the installation of synthetic turf fields will increase field revenues, increase soccer field usage, reduce field maintenance costs by 75%, and save water, all at the same time. Ginsberg may be right about the water and the field usage, but the rest of his claims are debatable.

Well-maintained grass fields are much less expensive than synthetic turf fields, and preferred by most soccer players. According to the RPD’s single cost analysis, each field will cost $800,000 to install and $6,000 to maintain annually. The synthetic turf fields will have to be replaced every 10 years, at a cost of approximately $350,000 for each field. The report states that it costs $42,000 per year to maintain an existing grass field and about $50,000 per field every time the RPD wants to completely replace irrigation and turf. The current grass fields are in poor condition because the cash-strapped RPD failed to budget for renovating the fields for the past 12 years, since 1998.

The projected $9.9 million project costs will be paid for by the City Fields Foundation and money from the 2008, $185 million, Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks general obligation bond. The City Fields Foundation works with the City in a public-private partnership to help renovate sport fields with synthetic turf and field lighting installations. The City Fields Foundation and the RPD have renovated park fields at Garfield Square Park, Silver Terrace Playground, Kimbal1 Playground, and Crocker-Amazon Park.

The RPD and Ginsberg are falsely claiming that placing synthetic fields in the Park will be cheaper than the existinggrass fields over time because the field usage will almost triple, hoping we’ll believe revenue will also triple. Even with all of SF’s newly renovated fields and fee increases, the RPD’s athletic field permit revenue declined by over four percent last year. In 2007, the RPD increased its field rental rates from $25 per hour to $65 per hour, a 160% increase. The 100-year-old, 70-team SF Soccer Football League saw six teams leave the City league last year, and now the whole league is considering playing out of town because it is too expensive to play soccer in SF. Boxer Stadium has reportedly lost over $100,000 from teams changing venues. Desperate-for-money, RPD keeps increasing field fees, it may soon see many empty fields, especially between 6pm and 10pm.

Ironically, as the RPD attempts to pave over the west end of GG Park with artificial turf, they are also trying to implement a Park preservation fee that would be added to the cost of tickets for the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. RPD’s Ginsberg is also thinking about a new citywide parcel tax on City property owners. Ginsberg will soon find out that the passage of his synthetic fields project will cost him any chance of passing a property assessment tax dedicated to the Rec and Park Department.

There are many other parks and high schools outside of GG Park where synthetic turf soccer fields could be built. Locating synthetic turf fields outside the Park may increase the number of synthetic soccer fields in the City and still allow park soccer players to continue playing on a uniquely reusable and environmentally sustainable surface known as real grass.

This is a simple but contentious issue.

People who believe that sports recreation should be the main use of Golden Gate Park want the synthetic turf soccer fields and 60 foot-high field lights. People who believe Golden Gate Park should accommodate sports recreation but should remain as natural as possible, want better-kept grass fields and no lights.

If you are opposed to the placement of synthetic turf soccer fields and 60 foot lights in Golden Gate Park, please write to your District Supervisor, volunteer to help out, and go to www.sfoceanedge.org and sign a petition against the synthetic turf fields. Golden Gate Park is everyone’s park!

George Wooding

President, West of Twin Peaks Central Council

February 2010

Questions Laguna Honda Needs to Answer

Policy decisions regarding Laguna Honda Hospital (LHH) are going on behind the scenes that Miraloma Park residents and the City’s voting public aren’t aware of, since the City doesn’t want to use the hospital for purposes presented to voters in 1999 to gain passage of the bond measure to rebuild LHH — and now doesn’t want to tell you about.

During the past ten years of planning and construction, LHH’s project scope has changed multiple times, including cutting 420 of LHH’s planned 1,200 beds, eliminating another 200 assisted living units for people needing a lower level of care, and chopping the Adult Day Health Center for elderly residents with dementias unsafe to stay in their own homes during the day, among other changes. Now, just four months before the new hospital is scheduled to open, LHH appears to be changing the type of patients it will serve, even though construction is all but complete. It’s not even clear whether LHH will continue to call itself a hospital, after spending almost $600 million to rebuild a facility with an initial $401 million budget.

When the City pitched the LHH rebuild bond in 1999, its entire advertising campaign claimed to be helping frail elderly and severely disabled San Franciscans. When 73% of voters passed Proposition A, they thought they were voting to rebuild a nursing home for indigent elderly and disabled San Franciscans. Now that the rebuilt hospital is almost completed, the Department of Public Health (DPH) is planning to add mental health and substance abuse patients at the eleventh hour.

LHH is not, and has never been, a psychiatric facility, and doesn’t have a psychiatric license. But DPH is actively planning to mix in a large number of younger, “behavioral health” patients with LHH’s current population of elderly adults with chronic, complex, and progressive medical conditions. (“Behavioral health” is defined as providing both mental health and substance abuse treatments.)

Heretofore, LHH admitted patients with physical medical conditions needing medical and nursing treatment or rehabilitation. Patients with secondary psychiatric problems were also treated, but their primary diagnosis had to be medical in nature for admission. LHH is once again contemplating discarding its long-standing “medical model of care” and embracing a psychosocial rehab, or “social wellness,” model of healthcare (which was introduced in 2003, but failed miserably in 2004) that relies less on medical doctors and more on psychologists, social workers, and nurses. What we really don’t know is what a “social model” of care even is, which nobody seems capable of adequately defining. This is one of the jargon-war terms that DPH’s administrators throw around whenever they want to claim LHH’s model of care is too “medical,” asserting “medical” is bad but that they know what is good for us.

This is the second time LHH has tried to add psychosocial programming at the expense of the elderly. In 2003, Mitch Katz, the Director of Public Health, overrode LHH’s admissions policy by sending a variety of younger, ambulatory patients from San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH) to LHH. Katz claimed huge economic and political pressure to unload SFGH patients into LHH, dubbing the plan as a “flow project.” Back then, and still today, there has been stunning dishonesty with the public about the flow project, which appears to be a key component of Mayor Newsom’s “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness” by sweeping the homeless into LHH.

Many of the younger patients suffered from substance abuse or mental health issues, and elderly LHH patients were not only displaced out of the facility and dumped out-of-county, they were harassed and attacked by the behavioral patients. LHH staff members were attacked, a wing of LHH was deliberately set on fire, and there was another fire set at the Laguna Honda reservoir. LHH was completely unprepared for these new patients, since staff had little training and LHH employed only two security guards. No resources were allocated to manage these behaviorally-troubled, younger, male patients dumped into LHH with nowhere else to go.

Hospital conditions were so disrupted the U.S. Department of Justice became involved, mandating specific types of patient care and treatment to prevent “institutionalizing” behavioral patients. LHH doctors and patient advocates reached out to community neighbors, and neighborhoods such as Miraloma Park became so vocal that the Mayor ordered Dr. Katz to reinstate LHH’s pre-flow project admission policies, end the flow project, and resume LHH’s previous patient demographics, which the Board of Supervisors now monitors.

LHH is about to reinstate the 2003 flow project by adopting findings from DPH’s new “Ja Report,” which recommends rehabilitating behavioral health patients at LHH, reducing the number of LHH’s doctors, increasing behavioral health staffing, and expanding transitional behavioral health beds. The Ja Report states: “There is a great concern over patient and staff safety due to a mixing of high-level substance abuse and mental health patients with older lower-level patients in open units. We recommend some type of separation.”

Interestingly, the Ja Report didn’t consider the safety of surrounding neighborhoods. Its only mention of LHH’s surrounding neighborhoods was: “The Ja report recognizes that local neighborhood and community concerns have been raised regarding the role of LHH with mental health and substance abuse patients. However, it is critical that the appropriate balance be struck between neighborhood concerns and the necessity for LHH to respond to the needs of the entire city and DPH as a whole.” Actually this statement is a lie. Virtually no one in the surrounding neighborhoods is aware of plans for the “new” LHH, since LHH hasn’t held a public meeting with any neighborhood organization about its potential population changes and probably won’t, unless they are pressured to do so. Instead, LHH offers tours of the new facility, but won’t hold town hall meetings to discuss substantive changes to its patient population or accountability of its bond expenditures.

The Ja report wrongly claims LHH needs to improve its interdisciplinary care. This recommendation is a red herring, since in 1986, then Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s Blue Ribbon Committee on LHH recommended changing from LHH’s old “nursing model of care,” by increasing the number of certified nursing assistants, doctors, social workers, and activity therapists working more collaboratively as an interdisciplinary team with the nurses, and adding an Ethics Committee and a hospice program. LHH has been using an interdisciplinary model of care for over two decades, utilizing medical doctors as a central component. Since 1999, LHH has added 20 new positions in its physical medicine rehabilitation department, including physical, occupational, and speech therapists, and restorative care aides. The bottom line? Now, in the absence of a new Blue Ribbon Committee on Laguna Honda, the Ja Report recommends LHH add psychologists and remove (fire) its medical doctors. This would be a step backward to the uni-disciplinary nursing model of care the DOJ objected to in 1998.

The Ja Report raises the possibility that LHH’s license will be changed to a hospital-based nursing home to formalize SFGH’s control over Laguna Honda’s mission, ending any possibility that Laguna Honda will serve the elderly from all over the City. Indeed there are some who believe the Ja Report is designed to provide “cover” to allow Dr. Katz to unilaterally determine LHH’s role in providing behavioral health care, and once again change LHH’s mission using another flow project. This is something we all must watch out for and oppose.

San Francisco has inadequate discharge locations for behavioral health patients. In July 2004, DPH shut down San Francisco’s only long-term care psychiatric facility, the Mental Health Rehabilitation Facility (MHRF), closing 145 psychiatric beds. To defend its closure of the MHRF, DPH officials cited the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court’s Olmstead decision that “mental patients should be able to live in less restrictive community based settings, rather than in locked hospitals, if they are medically able to.”

The real challenge for DPH is the Chamber’s lawsuit settlement agreement. The 2007, Chamber’s agreement limits LHH to 780 beds (City officials deny this) and basically forces LHH to place residents back into the community as quickly as possible. The goal of the lawsuit is to keep patients from living in an institution, specifically not at LHH. Almost all of LHH’s behavioral health patients will come from SFGH. LHH, an institution which used to be autonomous, is now controlled by SFGH. Under Newsom, LHH has quickly become cheaper housing for indigent patients that SFGH needs to release but can’t place back in the community. Under terms of the Chamber’s settlement, many of these behavioral health problem patients should be placed directly back into the community and treated using community-based services. Unfortunately, the City has nowhere to house them and sends them to LHH, ostensibly for rehabilitative or “habilitative” treatment. After behavioral health patients have been “rehabilitated” at LHH, the City still has nowhere to place them in the community. Over time, LHH’s behavioral health population will expand at the expense of LHH’s geriatric patients too ill, demented, or recovering from strokes to be cared for at home.

The bed that once was used for grandma’s long-term care will now be filled by a behavioral health patient. Who will bring their mom or their grandma to LHH for stroke rehabilitation, knowing there are hundreds of younger, unruly substance abusers wandering around LHH’s campus?

As LHH stockpiles behavioral health patients, it will be in direct violation of the Chamber’s settlement agreement. LHH is becoming the safety valve for San Francisco’s indigent mental health and substance abuse patients. San Francisco voter’s never expected LHH would become a “behavioral health” hospital, and this isn’t why we voted for the LHH bond measure. What will happen to San Francisco’s geriatric and disabled patients needing long term care who can no longer be placed at the hospital and who can’t be cared for safely at home?

While City government has a strategic goal of increasing transparency and accountability, Mayor Newsom appears to be hiding behind the skirts of LHH’s new administrator Hirose, who offers tours, but not answers to compelling questions about LHH’s mission, policies, or bond spending.

To be a good neighbor and a responsible institution, LHH needs to immediately start talking with its neighbors about LHH’s future patient population plans. We don’t know what population LHH intends to serve when it opens just four months from now, and whether LHH will be serving geriatric patients with chronic medical illness, or psychosocial patients with mental illness and substance abuse needs.

We don’t need more broken promises over how Laguna Honda bond money is being spent. We do need greater transparency — and a new Blue Ribbon Committee for LHH — to address Laguna Honda’s unanswered policy questions.

George Wooding, President, West of Twin Peaks Central Council

February 2010

San Francisco’s Most Complicated Intersection

19th Avenue Corridor/Time Extended for Public Comment

If you have concerns about possible changes to the 19th Avenue Corridor, the deadline for providing comments on the Study has been extended an additional two weeks.
Public comments on the study will be accepted until 5:00 PM on Friday, March 12, 2010. Written comments should be addressed to: Rick Cooper, Senior Environmental
Planner, SF Planning Department, 1650 Mission Street, Suite 400, San Francisco, CA
94103.
The study and appendices may be found at: http://www.sfplanning.org/index.aspx?page=1570. If you have any questions about the 19th Avenue Corridor Study, please call 415‐575‐9027.

Traffic Nightmare Ahead:
St. Francis Circle $18 Million Projectmap of St. Francis Circle

Get ready! In early March 2010, the City will start rebuilding St. Francis Circle, San Francisco’s most complicated intersection. The SF Metropolitan Transportation Agency (SFMTA) is hoping to complete the total rebuild by November 2010.

After decades of questionable traffic planning, political bickering, and planning revisions, St. Francis Circle is now shaped more like a twisted, double helix than a circle. Five roads — Junipero Serra Boulevard, Sloat Boulevard, Portola Drive, St. Francis Boulevard, and Woodacre Drive — converge at St. Francis Circle. Add three Muni lines, pedestrians, and bicyclists to the mix of vehicles, and you have a recipe for organized chaos at one of San Francisco’s most clogged intersections.

After 97 years of City and private developer “improvements,” St. Francis Circle will always be a traffic mess. Once the City decided to build it’s light rail tracks directly through the center of the Circle at ground level, the intersection was doomed to perpetual traffic delays and driver confusion. The new remodel will allow traffic to move more directly and faster.

The 40,000-plus daily drivers and the additional passengers of Muni’s K and M lines should be prepared for six months of lane closures, detours, and transfers to regular buses and shuttles. Long delays are expected. The K line is planned to be closed from May 14–31; both the K and M lines will be closed from June 1 to September 1. Project construction hours will vary from 7:00 a.m. – 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. seven days a week.

Most signal lights in San Francisco intersections typically cycle from green-to-red-to-green in approximately 60 seconds. St. Francis Circle’s traffic lights cycle every 105 seconds — making this the longest traffic wait in San Francisco. If you like to read, you’ll love going through this intersection next year, but people in a hurry should plan a new route, avoiding St. Francis Circle.

After years of minor patchwork maintenance, the City had to finally replace the aging Muni rails. The 30-year-old Muni rails have deteriorated to a point where they are starting to become unsafe.

To it’s credit, San Francisco has made the St. Francis Circle rail replacement a top priority. Project plans include new crosswalks, curb ramps, road pavement, traffic signals, Muni tracks and boarding platforms, improved pedestrian islands, and storm sewer systems.

The St. Francis Circle rebuild is anticipated to cost a total of $18.2 million. $14.6 million of the project funding (80%) comes from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) through the Section 5309 Fixed Guideway program, which distributes funds to regions based on an urbanized area formula. There is no state funding. The SFMTA’s $3.6 million (20%) share of project costs come from: 1) $2.2 million from the Proposition K sales tax administered by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, 2) $526,600 from bridge toll funds, and 3) $900,000 from the Department of Public Works.

The Evolution of St. Francis Circle

Jose Noe, a sheep rancher and the original owner of St. Francis Circle, was given a Spanish land grant in the 1800’s that incorporated the current Noe Valley and Twin Peaks area. Twin Peaks was called Pechos de la Choca, which translates literally to “the breasts of the Indian maiden.” Adolph Sutro purchased the Twin Peaks portion and planted trees to form a nature preserve called Rancho San Miguel. Sutro’s Eucalyptus and Monterey Pine forest spread from UCSF to Mt. Davidson and into St. Francis Woods.

After the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco looked to creating more housing. The new housing was based on a revolutionary new planning concept called the “Burnham plan,” which called for separated homes and respected the contours of the land, while providing for parks and large boulevards. Sutro’s heirs sold the property to the Residential Development Company (RDC), which was owned by Mason-McDuffie. In 1914, RDC and the Forest Hill Realty Company made an offer to San Francisco to improve, grade, and widen Corbett Road (today’s Portola Boulevard). The City agreed to this project and as part of the agreement, Market Street was connected to Portola Boulevard. The 1914–1915 City budget included funds to pave Sloat and Junipero Serra Boulevards.

All of this was in preparation for the opening of the Twin Peaks Tunnel and the push for scenic boulevards throughout the city for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The developers, not the City, paid for the Twin Peaks Tunnel and the Market Street extension. The tunnel was completed in 1917.

When St. Francis Wood’s street plan was designed in 1912 it included a large roundabout called St. Francis Circle. This roundabout lasted only about ten years and was replaced with a small concrete section with trolley wires and a street light pole in the middle. In 1920, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Several muchly traveled boulevards meeting at this junction have made St. Francis Circle the scene of a number of accidents.” The City’s inadequate solution was to erect more traffic signs.

In 1947, some “safety islands” were put in place for pedestrians trying to make the long trip across the intersection. In 1951 even more of a redesign was done and the first traffic lights were installed. The speed limit coming down Portola in the 1950s was 55 miles per hour!

In a fateful March 2, 1914 letter written by Duncan McDuffie, the owner of RFD, he stated, “It has not yet been determined whether the trains from the tunnel should be carried across Sloat Boulevard underground, overhead, or on the surface, or what course the tracks will take after they reach Sloat Boulevard.” Sadly and unwisely, the City chose to run the Muni lines on the surface directly through St. Francis Circle, thus, creating one of the worst intersections in San Francisco.

Let’s hope the SFMTA’s $18 million rebuild of St. Francis Circle will make it much safer for everyone to navigate.

George Wooding is President of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council. Special thanks to Woody LaBounty from the Western Neighborhoods project and Carolyn Squeri, President of St. Francis Woods.

December 2009

CITY CAR OWNERS PAY FOR MASS-TRANSITHeavy Traffic

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s (SFMTA) plan to increase parking meter operation hours throughout San Francisco has been tabled — at least for the time being.

Nathaniel Ford, SFMTA’s executive director has said the agency will “discuss the plan extensively before moving forward.” Hasn’t the SFMTA paid attention to the citizen revolt that just overturned extending parking meter hours in Oakland? Is Ford not paying attention?

The plan to charge for parking meters on Sunday’s and up until midnight on weekdays in neighborhoods such as North Beach has been poorly received throughout San Francisco’s diverse communities. Not one merchant’s association or homeowner’s association in the City currently supports the parking meter extensions.

At their October 20 Transportation Directors meeting, a tired SFMTA Board of Directors listened to three hours of public testimony opposing increasing meter operation hours. San Francisco’s lower-income residents with cars testified that the plan was a regressive tax on the poor. Business owners and merchant’s associations testified about losing business. The Chamber of Commerce, Cammy Blackstone from District 4 Supervisor Carmen Chu’s office, homeowner’s associations, and residents of all political persuasions were united in their belief that the plan was poorly conceived, and would financially harm both residents and local businesses. Even Mayor Gavin Newsom — who appointed the SFMTA Board and hired Nathanial Ford — is against the SFMTA’s meter extension plans.

Not surprisingly, groups that don’t generally receive parking tickets or pay for parking, such as the San Francisco bicycle coalition and the Sierra Club, support SFMTA’s plan.

The meter proposal is more about generating money for the SFMTA than traffic abatement. In April the SFMTA tried to pass a “blanket” parking meter extension plan that would have arbitrarily increased the operating time of almost every meter in the City to 10:00pm. The Board of Supervisors fought the proposal and gave the SFMTA 90 days to come up with a more equitable plan. The resulting “Extended Meter Hours Study” was of course, the predictable and self-fulfilling current plan to extend parking meter hours. It’s no accident that the SFMTA is trying to generate parking revenue while they are flat broke.

District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd stated, “The SFMTA would be making a major mistake if it implemented any of these changes on a citywide basis. Extended meters may work for merchants and residents alike in some neighborhoods, but they could be a disaster in others. This should only happen through a far more extensive outreach effort, and the demonstration of clear and convincing evidence of neighborhood desires.”

The bottom line? San Franciscans who own cars are sick and tired of being punished for the financial failures of the SFMTA.

The SFMTA has a $741 million budget, but has a $129 million budget deficit. In a “transit first” city this is very bad. Muni is discontinuing routes, eliminating service to low ridership areas, and running fewer routes. The SFMTA is simultaneously increasing fare rates, parking meter rates, towing fees, parking garage rates, parking ticket rates, and increasing parking violation enforcement. Despite the infusion of an additional $25 million annually to Muni as a result of the November 1997 Proposition A “transit reform” ballot measure (and untold additional revenue the Board of Supervisors could dedicate to the SFMTA from gas tax, vehicle license fees, and other motor vehicle-related revenues) the agency is still going broke, even with its voracious appetite to keeping adding new sources of revenue!

Last year, the SFMTA collected $278 million for parking and traffic fees and fines (30% of its revenue), but collected only $153 million in fares (20% of its revenue). Worried that fare increases will lead to declines in ridership, the SFMTA has decided to go after car owners for more revenue. Car owners are ideal targets because they: 1) Supposedly have more money, 2) Need to be punished for owning a green-house-gas emitting vehicle, and 3) Might be convinced to start using mass transportation given the higher parking fees. In a “green” city it’s increasingly considered “bad” to own or use a car.

The SFMTA’s parking meter plan is projected to generate $17.2 million in total revenue, but a measly $8.8 million in net revenue. If Muni simply collected all of the fares from transit riders who evade paying their fares, it would collect an additional $19 million annually. The SFMTA’s plan also requires spending: 1) $2.7 million in Coin Collection labor costs, 2) $5.0 million for 48 full-time workers and 26 part-time workers, 3) $650,000 for maintenance and labor and 4) a one time $2.5 million charge for equipment and marketing — for a total cost increase of $10.9 million starting in 2010.. Expect actual costs to be about 30% over-budget. San Francisco Parking Control Officers (PCOs) are also afraid of working late at night. There have been several broad-daylight assaults on PCOs over the last three years, so the SFMTA will have to increase the safety of PCOs brave enough to work evenings

At an October 21 community meeting, City Attorney Dennis Herrera (who is rumored to be considering running for mayor) stated, “The approximate $9.0 million the SFMTA is hoping to gain is a drop-in-the-bucket. We shouldn’t nickel-and-dime people against their will. I hate the idea — it’s crazy public policy. I’m not in favor of it.”

The most insidious part of the SFMTA’s proposal is what you don’t see: It is planning to add/extend parking meters on many streets adjacent to shopping districts. So neighbors who live close to a merchant district may soon find a parking meter plopped in front of their house. On September 15, the SFMTA quietly passed by voice vote Section 10.15, which amends the Residential Parking Permit portion (Section 905) of SFMTA’s Transportation Code. The new language in Section 905 states: “Nothing in this Section is intended to limit the SFMTA’s ability to designate a Residential Parking Permit Area (RPP) on its own initiative.”

Heretofore, 50% of neighborhood residents had to vote in favor of adopting an RPP to create a new RPP district. The SFMTA has quietly given itself unilateral authority to create and extend unlimited RPP’s throughout San Francisco —with or without the consent of neighborhood residents, regardless of whether we (or the Mayor) like it or not!

The $76.00 annual RPP fee (and inevitable parking violation tickets that will result) should be considered a tax, not a fee. The original intent of Section 905 amendment was to allow the SFMTA to create RPP areas in commercial districts, along freeways, and near schools, but the amended language clearly gives the agency the right to create RPP’s almost anywhere throughout the City. The revenue generated from creating new RPP zones would be enormous, kicking the barn door wide open to further abuse.

San Francisco must develop a comprehensive transit plan for pedestrians, bicycles, buses, trains, and … yes, even cars. Ironically, the success of San Francisco’s mass transit system is completely dependent on cars. The SFMTA’s current policy mantra — cars are bad, but let’s nail car owners with as many fines and fees as we can — will backfire and end up hurting the character of San Francisco neighborhoods and local businesses.

The SFMTA needs to get its own financial house in order, before it kills the goose that laid their golden revenue egg. After all, if parking meter extensions were a disaster in Oakland, why does the SFMTA think it will play well in San Francisco?

George Wooding is President of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council.

November 2009

Raiding the Parking Metersfeeding a parking meter

San Francisco’s new parking rates — higher parking ticket fines, new holiday parking rates and enforcement, and planned increases in parking meter operation hours — along with SF’s higher sales tax (at 9.5%), pack a double wallop hurting neighborhood businesses, shoppers, drivers, and neighbors.

When it is less expensive for shoppers to drive to jurisdictions with lower sales taxes and free parking, City and local business revenue is bound to plummet just when needed most.

On July 1, San Francisco raised parking meter rates fifty cents hourly throughout the City. Parking locally now costs at least $2.00 to $3.50 hourly. Parking meter citations recently increased to $50 – $60 and are being vigorously enforced. Although San Francisco officials claim increasing parking meter rates and tickets will help local businesses by creating more turn-over in neighborhood parking spaces, empty store fronts are sprouting up all over town.

Steve Dawson, the president of the Inner Sunset Merchants Association states, “There is no question that the higher meter rates and longer operation hours will impact local businesses by pushing customers to shopping malls where parking is free and ticket worries vanish.”

San Francisco’s parking control officers issue at least three tickets every minute. At minimum, two million tickets will be issued this year, generating over $100 million in parking revenue for the City. Some of this revenue goes to San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), which runs the Municipal Railway, traffic control, and parking operations. The remaining revenue is returned to SF’s general fund.

None of the money is used to support local businesses, despite earlier legislation.

The SFMTA had a $129 million budget deficit this year, and will be extremely aggressive enforcing parking tickets and parking meter collections.

Although San Francisco claims its love affair with mass transportation, over 25% of SFMTA’s income comes from fees on automobiles; San Francisco couldn’t afford current mass transit without drawing heavily from parking revenue. This is no different than gambling money (the Lottery) being used to support education, or the tobacco settlement revenue dedicated to rebuilding Laguna Honda Hospital being used to balance the City’s — specifically, the Department of Public Health’s — budget. Without the revenue from punishing “bad for the environment, greenhouse gas-emitting San Francisco drivers,” MUNI would likely go bankrupt.

The City has done little to help businesses already suffering from the economic downturn. The final straw may be SFMTA’s current proposal to increase parking meter hours throughout the City. Reportedly, each neighborhood business district has been individually evaluated.

The length of meter operation times on West Portal will be increased from the current 54 hours per week, to at least 70. This includes Sunday’s and later-evening parking fees. Castro Street and Columbus Avenue will see operating parking meter hours balloon from 80 to 90 hours per week. The SFMTA is solely responsible for making these decisions and is planning to start implementing them next year.

The SFMTA is not justifying its fee increases to San Francisco’s 26,000 parking meters on a revenue-generating basis. Instead, it claims parking meter increases will be used to 1) Support commerce, 2) Help create availability, so that customers who drive can access businesses, 3) Allow the SFMTA to use time limits and prices to achieve “availability goals,” and 4) Reduce double-parking and circling. SFMTA spared not one word about generating revenue.

The SFMTA assumes that higher turnover at parking meters will equate to higher merchant sales. There is no data or studies that support this flawed assumption. In fact, Oakland just extended longer parking meter hours and stringent new parking rules on July 1, despite many merchants noting their business is down by thirty percent. Oakland shoppers opposed the new parking enforcement hours, fees, and rules — and have stopped shopping at Oakland businesses, favoring instead shopping in nearby retail areas with lower parking costs.

San Francisco politicians take note: Disgruntled Oakland business owners are threatening to recall the Oakland City Council over the higher parking fees. Quoted in the September 24th Chronicle, Grand Lake Theater owner Allen Michaan said, “Disgusted doesn’t even begin to describe how I feel about our City Council. This is a public shakedown. It’s an extortion racket. I weep for Oakland and all the businesses that are going to close.”

Between 1947 and 1987, San Francisco and its local merchant associations agreed to share parking meter revenue collected in neighborhood shopping districts. The City placed parking meters throughout neighborhoods, promising merchants that collected parking revenue would be used to help local shop owners. Collected fees were to be placed in an “Off-street Parking Fund.” When the fund was first established it was agreed $1.5 million would go annually to San Francisco’s general fund and the remainder banked, until needed. Accumulated meter revenue was supposed to be used to build neighborhood parking garages and improve shopping districts.

But between 1987 and 1992, City politicians stabbed merchants in the back, looting all of the Off-Street Parking Funds (by at least $23 million) and placing the money into the City’s general fund.

In 1992, Stephen Cornell, the then-president of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Associations wrote to Jack Molinari, then president of the Parking and Traffic Commission: “Our main concern is the taking of the Off-Street Parking Funds. Without going into much detail, we were very disappointed that Mayor Jordan took $4 million out, after Mayor Agnos took $6 million at the beginning of the fiscal year. We were really mad that $8 million was taken from the upcoming year. With no money in the fund, nothing can be done for our neighborhoods!”

Seventeen years later, the City’s promises to neighborhood business districts remain broken.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority (TA) — run by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors — just released an on-street parking management study that proposes introducing neighborhood parking benefit districts (PBDs). According to Board of Supervisors President, David Chiu, “The thrust of this study was really to emphasize that neighborhood-specific processes be set up before, parking changes are implemented. If there are parking revenue increases, the study is recommending that the additional revenues somehow be farmed back into the neighborhood where those revenues were raised.”

This is precisely what was taken away from neighborhoods in 1992.

Without any financial incentives, neighborhood merchant associations no longer support San Francisco’s higher parking meter rates. Why should they? These businesses have little to gain, and a lot of business to lose to competing jurisdictions.

Once you take the carrot away from the stick, all you have left is the stick.

George Wooding is President of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council.

October 2009

Decaying Streets of San Francisco

San Francisco voters should celebrate the downfall of placing a $368 million general obligation bond measure on the November 3 municipal ballot that had been proposed to repair City streets.

The Safe Streets and Road Repair bond measure would have set a terrible precedent for City government. San Francisco street repairs have always been budgeted from the City’s General Fund. General obligation bonds are not meant to pay for salaries, equipment, or maintenance projects, such as road repairs.

Bond financing is typically reserved to fund large, one-time capital improvement and infrastructure construction projects, such as buildings or dams. The Safe Streets and Road Repair bond would have cost San Francisco voters $368 million dollars in principal plus another $200 million in interest on the bond debt over a 20 year period. The actual road and sidewalk repairs would only have had a life-span of 12 to 20 years, assuming they would be properly maintained.

District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd is leading the fight for responsible annual maintenance of San Francisco’s roads and sidewalks. Elsbernd was instrumental in preventing the proposed $368 million street repair bond measure from being placed on the ballot. He wants road repairs and maintenance to be paid for directly out of San Francisco’s General Fund, not from borrowed funds. In his July 29 newsletter, Elsbernd stated, “I opposed this bond because I believe that our city has the financial means, but not the political will, to prioritize the maintenance and improvement of our streets.”

Why does San Francisco perennially have such bad roads and sidewalks? For years, the City has redirected a large portion of gas taxes and property taxes that have been earmarked for municipal road and sidewalk repair for other purposes. Reasonable people call this misappropriation of funds from intended uses.

In 1989, San Francisco roads had an average Pavement Condition Index (PCI) of approximately 78. On a rating scale of one through one-hundred, with a one-hundred PCI being the best, a 78 PCI was a good rating for San Francisco. Today, seven years into the Newsom administration, San Francisco’s roads have deteriorated to a PCI rating of only 64. (That’s a grade of “D.”) San Francisco’s roads have gotten so bad that if the $368 million road bond had passed, the City was only expecting to improve its PCI rating to 69 after the road repairs were completed — a mere five-point improvement.

San Francisco’s tax revenue could stretch much further if the City would simply maintain its roads properly. Cutting back on road repairs is a classic example of trying to save money in the short term at the expense of much greater costs in the long term. Roads with a 50+ PCI rating generally cost about $95,000 per block to repair. A road with a 25 PCI rating costs approximately $430,000 per block to repair.

Due to poor political leadership, San Francisco has accumulated a huge backlog of deferred road maintenance. San Francisco’s Department of Public Works (DPW) uses a Pavement Management and Mapping System (PMMS) to track the condition of City streets. The PMMS estimates 6,314 (or 50%) of San Francisco’s 12,517 road segments are in need of repair. This huge log jam of deferred road repairs is estimated to cost $439 million to repair. This is $71 million more than the proposed $368 bond measure, so much of the repairs would not have been funded, assuming voters would have approved the bond.

If the City does not repair these 6,314 segments within the optimal period of time, they may have to be completely reconstructed at five times the cost ($2.2 billion), rather than the $439 million repair estimate.

The City estimates it needs $39 million annually for road repairs in each of the next ten years just to maintain a citywide PCI rating of 64. During the past five years, DPW received an average of just $23 million annually for street resurfacing; this allocation represents only 59 percent of the $39 million needed annually. Between Fiscal Year 2010 and Fiscal Year 2015, the City projects a shortfall of $125 million for road resurfacing and repairs.

As deferred road maintenance problems continue to pile up — including gaping sink holes and frightening pot holes damaging our vehicles — San Francisco chose to borrow money for road repairs.

On May 5, the Board of Supervisors quietly passed Ordinance 74-09 unanimously, allowing San Francisco to borrow up to $42 million dollars for street improvements by issuing certificates of participation (COP’s) — without voter approval. The COP’s will cost the City $5.5 million to issue and $32.1 million in interest payments over a 32-year period through the year 2040. But DPW will only receive $33 million from the COP’s to fund street improvement projects, at a total cost to San Francisco taxpayers of $70.5 million. This means that only 46 cents of every dollar raised by the COP’s will actually be used on road repair and improvement projects. If San Francisco’s General Fund had paid directly for road repairs, 100% of each dollar would have been given to the DPW.

On August 12, the Board suddenly revised terms of the Ordinance. In order to qualify for changing the bonds to federally taxable Build America Bonds that conform with The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the City now claims many of the street repair projects first identified were incorrectly described as “repair projects.” Magically, they are being reclassified as “capital improvement” projects. The debt service repayment has also suddenly been switched from Gas Tax revenues to General Fund monies. Now rather than funding these projects directly from the General Fund, the General Fund will ironically be used instead to repay interest on borrowing money.

Laguna Honda Hospital will be used as collateral for the COP’s, despite the fact that the hospital isn’t included in any of the proposed street improvement projects.

Borrowing money to pay for street maintenance repairs is an irresponsible use and waste of taxpayer dollars.

The City should not have to float COP’s (borrow) to fund street repairs that the voters have already paid for. To both residents and tourists — our largest industry — the streets of San Francisco are a civic embarrassment.

Federal, state, and local infrastructure funds should be spent on purposes that were intended. For now and the foreseeable future, San Francisco’s bikers, pedestrians, motorists, tourists, and politicians will all face trouble navigating the dangerous, decaying streets of San Francisco.

George Wooding is President of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council.

September 2009

Station 20—285 Olympia Way at Clarendon Avenue may be on the chopping block

Save San Francisco’s Fire StationsStation 20 Firehouse

The Board of Supervisors has proposed budget reductions that would force the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) to close up 12 of its 42 fire stations. After intense negotiations, the SFFD will probably be closing at least three fire stations.

On June 1, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors received Mayor Newsom’s balanced budget proposal for Fiscal Year ’09–’10. The Board was “angered” Newsom proposed slashing support for the City’s Recreation and Park Department, and the Department of Public Health, by 12%–20%, in order to propose 3%–6% increases to public safety agencies such as the Fire, Police and Sheriff’s Departments.

The Mayor is trying to balance San Francisco’s $438.1 million budget deficit. His proposed budget tries to protect core City services and his proposals were not unexpected. Progressive members of the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee have had six months to understand these anticipated cuts, but the Board let both their emotions, and special interest public health groups that have contributed heavily to their election campaigns, convince them to transfer $82.9 million from the Fire, Sheriff’s, and Police Departments budgets into the Health, Recreation and Parks, and Human Services Agency Departments in the Board’s alternative interim budget proposal. This $82.9 million budget shift is an unexpected slap-in-the-face to the City’s public safety agencies.

Making cuts to the SFFD budget is equivalent to making major cuts to public health. The SFFD is the first responder to almost all of San Francisco’s medical emergencies. 70 to 80 percent of the SFFD’s calls are medically related.

The Board’s Budget and Finance Committee originally proposed cutting $42 million to the Police Department, $23.7 million to the Fire Department, and $17.2 million to the Sheriff’s Department. Police Chief Heather Fong stated that these budget cuts might cause as many as 325 of the department’s 1,950 officers to lose their jobs. Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said that the cuts could result in the loss of 173 firefighters, and the closure of 12 of 42 fire stations. Hayes-White also warned of the possible reductions in response times to fires and medical emergencies.

On June 25, the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee relented and proposed a budget cut of (only?) $6 million to the SFFD. Hayes-White was quoted in the Chronicle as saying that budget cuts “will mean we will most definitely have to reduce or deactivate engine companies in addition to Station 35… It will be a challenge to meet mandated response times.”

The Budget and Finance Committee’s rash actions have now created a financial tug-of-war between public health, and public safety, agencies. Speaking at a June 16 firefighter’s rally, Newsom stated that the Budget and Finance Committee’s actions were so unplanned that they “had not even consulted the Board of Supervisors Budget Analyst before shifting funds.”

Brownouts: The Fire Department’s $285.6 million budget has been a tempting target for Supervisors Chris Daly, Eric Mar, Ross Mirkarimi, John Avalos, Sophie Maxwell, David Campos, and David Chiu. All seven of these Supervisors voted in favor of reviewing the closure, or limiting the use, of selected neighborhood fire stations. This reduction in fire protection is called a “brownout” and response times can be slower if a fire or injury occurs at the wrong place at the wrong time. These seven supervisors are playing “Russian roulette” with the public’s health and safety.

The Board of Supervisors escalated their attack on the SFFD by releasing a survey that showed San Francisco firefighters work only 48.7 hours per week — the lowest among 14 other nearby fire departments — but earned the third highest annual salary, at $98,670. Perhaps the Fire Department should conduct a survey examining why Los Angeles only needs five Supervisors to run L.A. (having a population of 9.8 million people as of July 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), while San Francisco’s dysfunctional Board needs eleven Supervisors (in our City of only 809 thousand people, according to the Census Bureau). The Fire Department may also discover San Francisco has 11 Supervisors for its 46.7 square miles, while L.A. only has 5 supervisors for its 498.3 square miles.

Reasonable people agree that funding public safety is much more of a priority than saving a couple of bucks. In 2004, San Francisco experimented with brownouts and was able to save $6.6 million. After a decline in response times due to San Francisco’s unique geography, architecture, and population density, 57% of San Francisco voters passed Proposition F in 2005. Prop. F requires San Francisco to stop using brownouts and keep all San Francisco fire stations open with adequate staff. The measure also preserved the Fire Department’s core services of fire suppression, prevention, and life support. The Board of Supervisors’ attempt to reintroduce the possibility of brownouts flies in the face of the will of voters, public safety principles, and the very letter and spirit of Proposition F.

The Police Officer’s Association voluntarily made a wage concession with the City, handing back $16.7 million in deferments and monetary benefits over the next two years. The Firefighter’s Association, Local 798, is reportedly (as this is written at press time) voluntarily negotiating a similar wage concession/deferment package worth between $9.5 and $10.5 million in concessions to the City. Fire Chief Hayes-White and her Deputy Chiefs are giving back half of the 4% raise increases they were due to receive this year. Both the Police and Fire Departments were working under negotiated contracts, and weren’t obligated to open their contracts and make any wage concessions. Their unions, and management, came back to the table to help San Francisco balance its budget.

Beyond the obvious good works they continually perform, San Francisco’s firefighters have worked financially with the City. In fiscal year (FY) ’03–’04, firefighters agreed to pay their own member pension contributions in order to help the City, while satisfying the cost-sharing requirements under the Charter to gain a retirement improvement. In FY ’04–’05, firefighters voluntarily saved the City $3 million by deferring wage increases, and increasing their weekly working hours from 48 to 48.7 hours, on average. Last year, firefighter’s Local 798 agreed to reduce their holiday premium pay over a period of three years, which will yield current and future savings of $6.17 million for the City.

It was a stupid move to pit San Francisco’s health and human services against its public safety services. The Board will gain little from the drama they have created. The SFFD utilizes less than 7% of the City’s total budget, while public health and multiple related human services departments utilize 23% of the City’s budget, consuming over two-thirds of General Fund expenditures.

Unfortunately, San Francisco’s myriad public health and human services “entitlements” have become so large, cumbersome, and expensive, they must now bear the brunt of the 1,600 jobs that will be cut if the Mayor’s proposed budget is adopted. The Board of Supervisors should not make the Police, Fire and Sheriff’s Departments scapegoats for predictable financial failures in the so-called public health “safety net.”

San Francisco has a great Fire Department and we should keep it that way. Every City department, non-profit organization, and labor organization needs to reduce their operating budgets, but cutting San Francisco’s fire stations is a ridiculous short-term budget solution.

Supervisors would think twice about cutting San Francisco’s neighborhood fire prevention services if they thought their own house might one day be on fire.

George Wooding was recently elected President of the West of Twin Peaks Central Council.

July/August 2009

Death, Taxes, and Your Morning ShowerO'Shaunessy Dam

San Francisco’s new water and wastewater rate increases should be added to the ancient proverb, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” More certain than death,is certainty of taxation and fees.

Between July 2009 and July 2014, San Francisco single-family residential water and wastewater rates and water service charges will increase an astronomical 61% per household. The average residential bill for water and wastewater is currently $63.16 monthly for a household averaging 7 units of water monthly. One unit of water equals 748 gallons of water. The same house, maintaining its same water usage, will pay $101.45 monthly by July 2014 — a $38.29 monthly fee increase, a staggering $459.48 annual increase!

Over the next five years, residential water rates will increase on an annual basis by 15.0%, 15.0%, 12.5%, 12.5%, and 6.5%, respectively. Residential wastewater rates, which already cost 6% more than water, will increase by 7.0%, 7.0%, 5.0%, 5.0%, and 5.0%. All of these rate increases will be compounded annually. Fixed water service charges will also be increasing. To help reduce the financial burden on homeowners, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) will soon stop billing customers on a bi-monthly (two-month) basis and will convert to monthly billing instead. The new monthly bills are designed to confuse consumers with the illusion that they will continue paying approximately the same rates.

Almost all of the new SFPUC rate increases fall on the shoulders of homeowners and landlords. A majority of San Francisco’s renters live in multi-unit apartment buildings without individual water meters; 69% of San Francisco residents are renters. Tenants without meters can use as little or as much water as they need, without having to pay for their actual usage; by contrast, homeowners pay every cent for their metered water, plus wastewater usage. San Francisco landlords pay water bills based on their building’s total consumption of water and wastewater. Landlords are only allowed to pass through a small percentage of the tenant’s water bill and no wastewater can be passed through.

The new 61% higher SFPUC rate increases for single-family residences will be used to help pay the principal and debt service for the revenue bonds authorized by the $3.6 billion Proposition A ballot measure in 2002. Due to a projected 28% cost overrun the project is now estimated to cost $4.6 billion. These projected cost overruns do not include debt service.

San Francisco’s increased water rates are needed to pay for upgrades to the Hetch Hetchy water infrastructure. These upgrades are meant to protect the water system against threats of earthquake and drought. The system delivers most of its water to suburban “wholesale” customers, and they pay proportionally for the upgrades. The water upgrade project was originally scheduled to be completed in thirteen years. Six years into the upgrade, only 16% of the project work is completed. With the heavy spending on bigger water projects just about to begin, rate payers should cross their fingers that all goes well, and further delays and cost overruns are avoided.

A BLANK CHECK: San Francisco voters gave away their rights to approve the SFPUC’s sale of bonds. In 2002, San Francisco voters also passed Proposition E, a City Charter amendment that: 1) Created a new Rate Fairness Board (Assembly Bill 2058); 2) Required the SFPUC to create long-term plans to operate, maintain, finance, and improve the utilities subject to extensive public hearings (Senate Bill 1870); 3) Redefined rate-setting procedures; and 4) Allowed the SFPUC to issue revenue bonds to make improvements to power, water, and sewer utilities subject to a two-thirds vote of approval by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors.

To actual San Francisco voters, the SFPUC is now a closed-door system; it only needs approval from the Board of Supervisors (not voters) to issue revenue bonds. So ... watch your utility rates continue to skyrocket as the SFPUC continues issuing Proposition A revenue bonds. Additionally, in 2016, the SFPUC will start it’s $3.2 billion repair of San Francisco’s wastewater system. Homeowner’s and landlord’s water and wastewater rates will likely more than triple over the next decade.

San Franciscans are not only paying for an upgraded water system, they are also paying for San Francisco’s bad governance. Repair and replacement of our water system has always been factored into San Francisco water rates, but misspent. From 1979 to 2001 City politicians and officials raided the Hetch Hetchy water system of at least $670 million, leaving the Bay Area’s largest water supply vulnerable to earthquake, drought, and decay. San Francisco’s politicians deferred Hetch Hetchy maintenance by using a legal loophole (now closed) to place hydroelectric revenue directly into the City’s General Fund.

The Hetch Hetchy system was falling apart while San Francisco was using its revenue as a blank-check slush fund to finance higher employee salaries, social engineering programs, and unnecessary political patronage jobs. Reportedly, Willie Brown’s administration alone diverted more than $233 million of the $670 million raided from Hetch Hetchy’s revenue bonds. San Francisco’s wholesale customers became so concerned that they contacted the State and threatened lawsuits. In 2002, the City was finally forced to act responsibly and begin the long process of “fixing, repairing and seismically upgrading” the ailing Hetch Hetchy water system.

Homeowners, landlords, and eventually renters, will now find the long-term costs of San Francisco’s 30+ years of deferred water system maintenance and irresponsible governance appearing on their ever-increasing water bills.

SAN FRANCISCO RESIDENTS ALREADY CONSERVE WATER: San Franciscans use a very low, 61 gallons of water per day, per person, on average. When asked to voluntarily ration water usage, San Franciscans cut their usage further, to just under 57 gallons per day. Even if normal conditions were to prevail, by 2018 San Franciscans will be required to further cut their average water usage to 54.2 gallons per day. These water usage figures are based only on San Francisco’s already-planned development and population growth. All future development plans must seriously consider how much water will be available to San Francisco (Senate Bill 610).

We have great water in San Francisco; soon, however, we might not be able to afford it. How much should a glass of water cost? While nothing is certain but death and taxes, water rates seem to be pricing us out of a glass of water and a leisurely morning shower.

George Wooding is Vice President, West of Twin Peaks Central Council.

June 2009

Westside Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Auto Exhaust Photo

A Solution Searching for a Problem

Like dominos falling, this year’s financial collapse of Muni exposes the weakness of San Francisco’s new, green “transit first” policies. Muni is currently $129 million over budget and going broke fast. Muni is shortening existing routes, raising rates and reducing service. If San Francisco’s mass transportation doesn’t work, the City’s future plans for redevelopment on the west side of San Francisco won’t work either.

A New Plan for the West Side: Following the guidelines of California Senate Bill 375, “The Redesigning of Communities to Reduce Greenhouse Gases,” San Francisco is preparing to reduce greenhouse gases in Westside neighborhoods by trying to limit the amount of vehicle-miles-traveled (VMTs). Although cars are the single-largest source of greenhouse gases in California, San Francisco already has the lowest automobile ownership rates per capita in the country outside of Manhattan. Soon, driving a greenhouse gas-emitting car in San Francisco will be relegated to the same status as smoking a cigarette in a kindergarten classroom.

San Francisco’s emission reduction policies are going to change Westside neighborhoods just as much as the introduction of cars changed the City over the last century. Our single family homes and the character of our neighborhoods will be changed by the mandates of SB375. In order to reduce VMTs, the City has created “transit corridors” throughout San Francisco. Streets (transit corridors) such as West Portal, Judah, Taraval, Ocean and 19th Avenue are all prime candidates for transit-corridor redevelopment projects. A transit corridor can be up to a mile wide, so there won’t be many neighborhoods that are not impacted by this policy.

Reducing a neighborhoods VMTs means that future high-density developments will be larger, taller (four to eight stories), and will be limited to half-a-parking-spot per unit or no parking per unit. Current Westside developments usually have at least one parking spot per unit. Developers love these new parking standards because they can build more units instead of parking. The Planning Department also likes more development because 90% of its revenue comes from development fees. Surrounding neighborhood streets will become off-site parking lots for these new developments. More emphasis will supposedly be placed on mass transit such as Muni and reduced focus will be placed on car travel. As bike lanes are added, hundreds of parking spaces may be removed on streets such as Portola Avenue. Wider sidewalks will be added for pedestrians, along with longer traffic lights, more crosswalks, and, of course, fewer lanes for cars.

High-density traffic corridors are not theoretical. The City has already set a planning precedent by approving the Market Street/Octavia project, which was based on 1) Balancing transportation by considering people movements over auto movements, 2) Reducing parking requirements to encourage housing and service requirements without adding cars, 3) Allowing flexible types of new housing to meet a broad range of needs, and 4) Building a 400-foot-high housing tower consisting of 603 residential condominiums. Westside neighborhoods are prime targets for transit corridor developments because of the low population density of single family homes.

The Balboa Park development plan, approved this April for the areas surrounding the Ocean Avenue Bart and Muni stations will produce as many as 1,780 new housing units and 104,680 square feet of commercial development over the next 20 years. The neighborhood zoning density, size, height and scope have all been increased. Project developers are actually not required to build ANY parking. In fact, developers are being discouraged from building parking and must follow stringent guidelines if they do want to build parking. The Balboa Park Development Plan states, “Residential parking is not required and generally limited. Commercial establishments are discouraged from building excessive accessory off-street parking in order to preserve the pedestrian-oriented character of the district and prevent attracting auto traffic.”

In truth, San Francisco’s new high-density, transit corridor developments are more about increasing City property taxes, development fees and commercial taxes than they are about reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Muni’s funding is based on fares, State funding for transit operations and — you guessed it — parking tax receipts and additional parking revenues. The more cars that Muni takes off of the streets, the less money Muni will have for its transit operations. Car fees represent approximately 25% of Muni’s revenue.

Predictions: Westside neighborhoods will become clogged with the cars of the people who move into brand new high-density condominium developments and have nowhere to park their cars. Finding a parking place in your neighborhood for your visitors will become as impossible as finding parking in downtown. The unique character of Westside neighborhoods will be altered. Muni will continue to remain under-funded, underperforming, and unreliable. As the Westside population density increases, Westside greenhouse gas emissions will INCREASE, rather than decrease. Do Westside neighborhoods even have a high amount of greenhouse gas emissions?

George Wooding is Vice President, West of Twin Peaks Central Council

May 2009

Taxation Without Representationburning money

City officials talk about San Francisco’s shrinking middle-class population, but no one is doing anything about halting the trend.

San Francisco’s misguided Board of Supervisors continue pushing for a special municipal election, to be scheduled sometime this summer. The State of California has already scheduled a special election for May 19 that features a variety of tax increases and fees on both homeowners and tenants.

San Francisco has a regular election scheduled for November 3. This summer’s special election will cost the City approximately $3.5 million dollars. To their credit, District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and District 4 Supervisor Carmen Chu, the two Supervisors with the most City budget experience, oppose the proposed City special election.

If held, San Francisco’s special election proposes increasing the sales tax by half of one percent, imposing a $150 to $300 residential parcel tax and an estimated $1,000 parcel tax on selected businesses, increasing vehicle registration fees (only the State is allowed to tax vehicle registration fees, but this may change), limiting budget set-asides, allowing the City to drain more money from its “rainy day reserve” fund, and creating some type of carbon emissions tax.

The Board of Supervisor’s claim the revenue generated by these new taxes and fees will help off-set San Francisco’s purported (but unproven) $576 million budget deficit. The Board wants to maintain the status quo among the City’s existing programs, employee salaries, and labor contracts by increasing taxes and fees, rather than making necessary budget cuts (especially cutting the 8,933 City employees earning over $100,000 annually).

At a March 2 “community budget crisis” meeting, District 11 Supervisor John Avalos, Budget and Finance Committee chair, ended his speech about helping San Francisco’s poor by stating, “I don’t want to see San Francisco become a playground for the wealthy.” Everyone wants to help San Francisco’s poor and needy, but who exactly are San Francisco’s “wealthy?”

Avalos, a former legislative aide to Supervisor Chris Daly, has been on the Board of Supervisors for less than three months, and was appointed by Board President David Chiu, who has also been on the Board for less than three months. Asked to quantify what he means by “wealthy,” Avalos responded “The[y’re] people with lots of disposable income.”

Let’s be clear: If you are currently paying taxes, have a job, pay a mortgage, own a small business, or own rental units, consider yourself to be among the “wealthy” just because you “dispose” of your middle-class income responsibly.

While their intentions may be good, the Board could use a lesson in basic economics. The City’s proposed sales tax, coupled with the States proposed one percent sales tax increase, will push San Francisco’s sales tax to 10%, leaving us with the distinction of having one of the highest sales tax rates in the nation. Sales taxes, known as regressive taxes, will lead to less consumption in San Francisco. Businesses in the City will suffer lower sales, and may have to either reduce staff or possibly go out of business.

Ironically, San Francisco’s poor will be hurt the hardest by increased sales taxes, because they can’t leave the City to shop, and will be forced to pay higher prices for fewer goods and services. Depending on the behavior of San Francisco’s “wealthy,” the City may actually collect less revenue from sales taxes than it does now. Ask yourself if you would buy a car in San Francisco, or would you go to Daly City to buy the same car for less money, pocketing the savings?

PARCEL TAXES ARE TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION: San Francisco’s proposed parcel taxes absolutely screw San Francisco’s homeowners and small property owners. Parcel taxes aren’t even taxes; they’re actually fees and/or assessments on individual pieces of property. Homeowners often confuse parcel taxes with property taxes because they appear on the same bill. The owner of a downtown skyscraper will pay the identical $150 to $300 parcel tax that you will for your own home. Only the City’s property owners will pay for the proposed parcel taxes; renters (67% of the voters) won’t pay any parcel taxes because they don’t own property.

“Ironically, San Francisco’s poor will be hurt the hardest by increased sales taxes, because they can’t leave the City to shop, and will be forced to pay higher prices for fewer goods and services.”

This creates a divide-and-conquer situation where renters can increase homeowner taxes and fees at will, and never pay a dime of those taxes themselves. San Francisco voters, primarily renters, added an annual $300 dollar parcel tax for schools just last year. The City should either stop proposing parcel taxes/fees, or let only property owners vote on the tax. You can’t have a situation where one group of voters keeps adding fees on another group of voters. If you own property in San Francisco, never vote for a parcel tax/fee.

On December 22, 2008, “ the Controller’s office released “The Stakeholder Input Report.” The report was developed from interviews with elected officials, department heads, finance directors, members of the business community, and labor organizations. No groups representing either homeowners or small property owners were interviewed. Some of the findings: 1) Respondents largely shared the belief that communication is completely lacking between the current Board of Supervisors and the Mayor; 2) There is not enough leadership from policy-makers around the budget; 3) The Board of Supervisors has a lack of over-arching policy priorities or Board ownership of the budget; 4) Board members who do not sit on its Budget and Finance Committee are minimally involved in the budget process, which leads to a lack of institutional memory and very little knowledge of, or buy-in to, the final budget; and 5) Education: It was suggested, both by outsiders and by Supervisors, that each city Supervisor should have to undergo a budget training process.

This report helps explain why San Francisco has a $576 million budget deficit. Me? I’m still unclear about what the term “ lots of disposable income” means for San Francisco’s shrinking middleclass.

George Wooding is a resident of Midtown Terrace

April 2009

Increase Taxes? NO!

San Francisco’s already over-burdened, over-taxed homeowners are the City’s great silent majority. Dutifully, we continue paying our bills, while the value of our homes, retirement funds, and incomes decline. With the great exception of homeowners, almost every demographic in town has a special interest group representing their interests.

The Board of Supervisors is currently negotiating with business and labor groups to “build a citywide consensus on how best to address San Francisco’s $560 million budget deficit.” But there’s no room at — and homeowners haven’t been invited to — the bargaining table discussing budget deficit solutions. Following budget negotiations, homeowner’s only “stakeholder” role will be to pay … and pay … and pay, again.

San Francisco’s huge budget deficit is partially due to chronic City overspending, partially due to the mortgage banking crisis, and partially due to a reduction in real estate transfer taxes. But between 2007 and 2008, the City increased the number of its employees earning over $100,000 annually by 753, from 8,180 to 8,933 such employees. 79 of them now earn over $200,000 annually.

San Francisco is now spending $1.16 billion annually, just on base salaries. City officials knew in July 2008 they were running a 2009 budget deficit of over $200 million, which has grown and now ranges between $460 million and $576 million. The recently laid-off 409 City employees and 300 vacant positions that were eliminated, along with accompanying budget cuts that the City made were to balance $125 million in the City’s 2008 budget deficit. Another 173 employees face layoff notices in April, according to the Chronicle in addition to the 236 employees who received layoff notices on Feb. 20. To date, this totals 1,118 laid off or eliminated positions. The City still needs to eliminate an additional 100 – 1,000 jobs to help balance this year’s budget. The City still needs to eliminate an additional 100 –1,000 jobs to help balance this years budget

Something has gone terribly wrong with San Francisco’s government. There are too many highly-paid employees, too many social programs, too much social engineering. There was a time when a government job meant security, but generally a low income. Government is now San Francisco’s number one industry.

On average, City government employees earn $6,000 annually more than the average San Franciscan (excluding benefits/retirement). our health care costs are six times the national average. We pay the highest parking, gas, and insurance rates. On a per capita basis, San Francisco has one employee for every 27 residents.

Both the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors claim to be negotiating to reduce existing City labor contracts by $90 million in 2009. Mayor Newsom has spent more time visiting Europe and Stockton this year than he’s spent in your neighborhood. The City is due to hand out an additional $67.7 million in annual labor raises before July first, in addition to the $49.76 million awarded in raises to police officers, deputy sheriffs, firefighters and the Municipal Executives Association last December 27. This totals a minimum of $117.5 million in raises. Another $46.7 million in raises are scheduled between July 2009 and June 2010.

As of February 23, Newsom obtained less than $1 million of the $90 million in requested labor concessions.

California’s legislature just scheduled a May 19th special election to increase the State sales tax by one-cent-on-the-dollar, almost double the vehicle license fee, and add a .025 percent increase to 2009 state income tax payments. Vote no on these tax increases.

San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors are still proposing a special election to 1) Increase the sales tax by another half-of-one-cent-on-the-dollar, to a ten percent total, 2) Impose new revenue taxes on homeowners and businesses, 3) Draw down all of the City’s “rainy day reserve” funds, and 4) Limit voter-approved budget set-asides. Vote no on these tax increases.

The Mayor’s new “economic stimulus” plan centers on revenue growth, job creation, and stemming job losses. Mayor Newsom wants to accelerate capital spending on: The Hetch Hetchy rebuild ($4.4 billion), San Francisco International Airport’s terminal rebuild ($383 million), the new “green”“headquarters for the Public Utilities Commission ($188 million), and San Francisco General Hospital’s rebuild ($887.4 million). Unfortunately, the City is currently unable to sell long-term municipal bonds for capital improvements.

A jobs bond is also being prepared for the November ballot. The Mayor’s economic stimulus plan also 1) Provides over $23 million in no-interest loans to local businesses, 2) Grants local businesses a tax credit on new, locally-purchased equipment, 3) Expands the scope of the “Working Families Tax Credit” program, and 4) Grants local businesses a “New Jobs Payroll Tax” exemption for two years.

The Mayor doesn’t want a special election scheduled and doesn’t want local sales taxes increased. His “invest and grow” strategy makes more sense than either California’s or the Board of Supervisor’s tax-and-spend plans, but yet again the main problem with Newsom’s plan is that he’s borrowing against future revenues to pay for current expenses, which he’s done before.

San Francisco’s homeowners have shouldered the weight of the City’s inefficient government far too long. City government has become top heavy with employees earning in excess of $100,000, their benefits, and inefficient spending programs.

No matter how painful, it’s time San Francisco’s government start actually cutting salaries and benefits for those earning over $100,000 in various City departments and programs. These cuts must be made now. Homeowner’s are already paying too much for too little. All state and San Francisco special-election tax increases should be voted down.

March 2009

here come da tax increases

By George WoodingNewsom Assistant Mike Farrah

Due to a projected shortfall in the 2009-10 budget year of $575 million dollars, the Board of Supervisors has officially declared San Francisco to be in state of “financial emergency.” On January 27th, The Board of Supervisors will vote to certify a “special election” to be held on June 2nd. Several new city taxes could/will be placed on the ballot.

The State of California is currently considering having a “special election” in April to add new state related taxes. The taxes that San Francisco will attempt to add will be separate and unique from the taxes that the State of California will attempt to add. In order to save millions in city special election costs, San Francisco must schedule its election on the same date as the State’s election date.

Rather than trying to balance the budget through budget cuts and legislation, both San Francisco government and California state government have decided to balance the budget by creating a series of “temporary” and long-term tax increases. Several past “temporary” tax increases have become permanent.

WHO WILL PAY? a majority of the new taxes will fall heavily on San Francisco homeowners, property owners and business owners. 

BACKGROUND: The city’s estimated $575 million budget deficit has been caused by 1) a revenue decline in the city’s sales taxes; 2) a steep decline in the property transfer tax; 3) increasing salary, transportation and public health costs; 4) mandated budget set asides for the police department, libraries, children’s services and the symphony; and 5) chronic cost overruns in city departments. San Francisco’s $1.2 billion discretionary budget may be cut in half.

THE PROPOSED TAXES: Many of these tax funds may be specifically earmarked to help public health or the city general fund.

01. A possible increase in the sales tax; the increase not to exceed 0.5% for a total tax rate of 9%. COMMENT: This sales tax will affect all San Francisco citizens and will be punitive to the poor, elderly and people on fixed incomes. San Francisco’s already ailing retail sector will continue to suffer as shoppers buy products through the Internet and outside of the city. This so-called temporary tax will be around for a long, long time.

02. A possible increase in the payroll tax, the increase is not to exceed 0.2% for a total tax rate of 1.7%. COMMENT: Many San Francisco businesses will either reduce employees or move out of the city if they are able to.

03. A possible new residential utilities users tax, not to exceed 7.5%. COMMENT: This punitive tax will compliment the exorbitant water rates that single-family homes are now paying. Due to the lack of water meters in multi-unit buildings, homeowners are already paying three or four times the water rates that multi-unit tenants pay. Everybody loses on this one.

04. A possible increase in the commercial utilities users tax, the increase not to exceed 2.5% for a total tax rate of 10%.

05. A possible new parcel tax, not to exceed $300 for a residential parcel and $1,000 for other parcels. SPECIAL WARNING TO HOMEOWNERS: A parcel tax is the worst and most unfair tax that can be placed on your home. The city’s 67% renters do not have to pay this tax at all. The owner of a downtown building worth $100 million will only be paying $1,000 annually in parcel taxes for this property. The city renters and the Chamber of Commerce join forces to place this tax on homeowners. ABSOLUTELY NO PARCEL TAXES.

06. A possible new gross receipts tax on residential rental income, not to exceed 0.127%

07. A possible new gross receipts tax on commercial rental income, not to exceed 0.127%

08. A possible new gross receipts tax on all commercial transactions, not to exceed 0.1%

09. A possible new surcharge on the parking tax, the surcharge not to exceed 5% for a total tax rate of 30%

10. A possible amendment to Charter Section 9.113.5 allowing the city to appropriate up to 100% of the current balance in the Rainy Day Reserve, not to exceed 20% of the projected deficit, in years in which a budgetary deficit of $250 million or more is projected. COMMENT: This is like borrowing from your retirement fund to buy a brand new car.

11. A possible new charter amendment that would cap all set-asides at their Fiscal year 2008-2009 levels, allow the City to reduce its contributions during budgetary shortfalls, and provide that year-end surpluses be returned to the General Fund. COMMENT: This will impact the voter-mandated set-asides for the police department, libraries, children’s services and the symphony.

San Francisco’s homeowners are already paying more than their fair share of taxes. It is not a good idea to increase homeowners taxes while property values are falling, investments diminish and personal incomes decline. The average city employee makes over $6,000 more per year than the average resident, not including benefits. There is one city employee for every 26 residents and over 8,000 city government employees making over $100,000 per year. Now is a good time to cut unnecessary local government, reevaluate city programs and reduce city spending.
February 2009

 

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