Funding is the name of the game for San Francisco’s ambitious Department of Environment (SFE) which is now maneuvering to get the Mayor to allow the agency to draw funds directly from the City’s already over-committed discretionary General Fund.
The SFE currently is a City enterprise agency. This means that it has to be financially self-sufficient, generating its own revenue without subsidies from the General Fund. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the San Francisco International Airport, and the Port of San Francisco are all enterprise agencies.
If SFE becomes a “General Fund department” and annually takes a cut from the City’s shrinking discretionary money, other City agencies such as the libraries, Recreation and Park, Human Services Agency, Public Health, Children Youth and Families, plus several more departments will start to receive less annual funding. The City services that people depend on will foot the bill to pay for SFE.
SFE grew from its creation in the revised 1995 City Charter with a budget of $281,000 in 1997 to presently a $20 million operation. It employs over 100 people and occupies a rented 24,400 sq ft space at 1455 Market Street”
Unlike other City enterprise agencies, the SFE is empire building, and refuses to cut back on employees, expenses or projects even though its revenue does not cover its costs. The result is currently a budget shortfall and SFE wants a City bail out.
SF Environment’s Financial Mismanagement
Financial mismanagement was revealed at the January 27th Commission on the Environment meeting to approve the 2015-2016 SFE budget. The budget was sent to the Commission with funding gaps in salaries and unfunded obligations for employees’ benefits, referred to as “structural problems.” There was no discussion of hiring freezes, layoffs or cutting programs to balance the budget.
During the meeting, the Commissioners did discuss various strategies for enticing the Mayor to make SFE a “General Fund Department” to backfill the gaps. Then they approved the budget, even though it was unbalanced. The Charter requires Commission approval before a budget is submitted to the Mayor.
To understand the department’s mismanagement, one needs to know that SFE grew from its creation in the revised 1995 City Charter with a budget of $281,000 in 1997 to presently a $20 million operation. It employs over 100 people and occupies a rented 24,400 sq ft space at 1455 Market Street in order to house everyone.
SFE gets 46% ($9,389,000) of its revenue from grants. This is an enormous amount of their budget that varies from year to year. The funding that many staff rely on is not guaranteed. Also, many grants do not pay for all the staff benefits the City affords its employees, so these costs are shifted to other funding sources by bending the rules.
Frequently, grants do not pay for indirect costs. These indirect costs include such things as the $756,000 that SFE pays annually for rent, with a remodeling loan financed at 8%. There are other administrative expenses that bring the total to $4 million a year. When grants do not pay for indirect costs, they must be absorbed by other funding sources.
Now those other funding sources cannot sustain underwriting all the grants, so it’s City Hall to the rescue.
The culture of SFE has not reflected a desire to be a fiscally responsible enterprise department with a sound business plan. Why would they be any better at managing money if they were a General Fund Department? There is no oversight by anybody, including City Hall.
SFE could curtail some financing problems by stopping the practice of hiring long term costly City employees with short term grant funding. For example, last July SFE got the Mayor’s approval to convert four staff from temporary employees to permanent status with all the benefits that includes. Now SFE is advertising for another new permanent employee in the salary range of $84,000 - $102,000, knowing this adds to ITS deficit.
Grants can be used to hire independent contractors without City benefits to perform SFE’s work, instead of hiring employees with benefits. When the grant money ends, so does the need to pay somebody. Problem solved.
The rest of the $20 million budget comes from other City departments who contribute 9% ($1,752,000) to SFE in the form of work orders, and from the Solid Waste Management Program (SWMP) for 45% ($9,323,000). The SWMP money is a fee added to the residential garbage rates renegotiated whenever the Recology rates are periodically increased. SFE tells Recology how much money to collect on behalf of the City, and this sum is then part of the rates. The Refuse Rate Board always approves whatever SFE asks.
The Plan To Fool The Mayor
At the same January 27th meeting where the budget was approved, the Commission heard a presentation by a Mayor’s Budget Office staff member on the Controller’s 5 year financial plan to the year 2020. It projects a shortfall of $15.9 million for next year’s budget, and that expenditures are continuing to grow faster than revenue. Because the 5 year plan is presenting a “recession scenario,” the city proposes to curb growth and increase revenues.
The Commissioners heard these words of warning, ignored them, and decided that now is the ideal time to get on the City’s gravy train, before the financial picture gets any worse. Then they discussed various strategies for convincing the Mayor to make SFE a General Fund Department. Since the Mayor referred to SFE programs in his recent State of the City speech, they decided he could be manipulated into providing funds for them.
Previously, at the Operations Committee meeting on January 21st, Commissioners talked about ideas for getting the General Funds:
1. Commissioners discussed the need for more funds and how to get their expensive City Attorney fees paid with City money. They assume that becoming a General Fund Department with just “a dollar” allocation will automatically provide SFE with a large budget appropriation to pay these fees. This is a primary reason for pursuing General Funds.
Commission President Arce: “We have to get General Fund [money] period. Why? It solves the City Attorney problem. If we get $1 we get an allocation. Right? So we have to win. We have to get in there [into the General Fund budget].”
2. Commissioners discussed what would be the best way to justify and sell to the Mayor a request for General Fund money. Would it be by asking for either “discretionary” funding to pay for expenses, or for a to-be-determined “program component”, or both reasons?
Commission President Arce: “We can work hard on this to make it happen. And that’s what we’re here for as Commissioners, to work all kinds of little angles and stuff.” - including fooling the Mayor.
3. Commissioners discussed how to make their SFE budget proposal look better, “create a buzz,” and be more appealing to the Mayor by parroting back the ideas from his recent State of the City speech.
Commission President Arce: “We just say the exact same words. We just copy and paste from the shared prosperity agenda [from the Mayor’s speech] and put it into our proposal for General Fund [money]. We’ll get it. Period.”
At the January 27th meeting, Director Deborah Raphael reported that she had already had discussions with Kate Howard, Director of the Mayor’s Budget Office, about the importance of General Fund money for SFE and thanked the office for their support in this effort. Clearly, this idea is now being discussed behind closed doors on the second floor of City Hall.
It is important to note that the Commission made no effort to get any public opinion on this controversial decision to cease being an enterprise department. The topic was never on any Commission agenda. This is exactly the kind of issue that the Sunshine Ordinance intended to keep in front of the public at all times with full disclosure. That did not happen.
SFE has been left to its own devices and is now out of control. They want funding from the taxpayers as well as from the ratepayers with no oversight.
The City needs to audit SFE’s fiscal practices and business plan long before considering giving them any taxpayer money, and to decide what procedural changes need to be made. Detailed financial oversight from the City is definitely required for all of SFE’s funding sources.
SFE needs to balance the books and live within its revenue restrictions. It should not be rewarded with general funds to cover up poor management of grants.
SFE should hire independent contractors on grants, rather than City employees.
SFE should faithfully apply the Commission-approved Guidelines for Use of the funds from the Solid Waste Management Program, with periodic City audits of the expenditures for compliance.
New activities should not be accepted without the underwriting to finance them. If necessary, other City departments can take on programs SFE has trouble funding.
SFE needs a viable fund raising plan to endow the department, and then needs to implement it.
The Commission on the Environment needs to agendize all fiscal matters according to the Sunshine Ordinance. Major financial decisions are discussed without being clearly publicized in violation of the Ordinance and Brown Act, and without inviting an informed public to comment. Financial matters need full disclosure and transparency.
The Mayor needs to immediately fill two vacancies on the Commission on the Environment with people who have experience in overseeing multimillion dollar business operations and have a working knowledge of fund raising and grants.
Nancy Wuerfel, a government fiscal analyst, served as a member of the Park, Recreation Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) for 9 years as an appointee of 3 District 4 Supervisors, George Wooding is a Westside Observer Investigative Reporter.
It’s budget season down at City Hall, so most citizens could use some help understanding the ways the Mayor proposes to spend our $8,567,000,000 budget.
Over half of the budget will be used to pay for salaries and benefits of the 28,497 city employees, totaling $4,331,000,000. The average expense per employee is $151,985 (this is not a typo, see page 24 of proposed budget). The rest of the money will be spent in cost categories listed as “Non-personnel” Operating Costs - 22.6%; Debt Service - 11.5%; Capital & Equipment - 5.5%; Grants - 4.8%; Aid Assistance - 4.2%; Reserves - 2.6%; Facilities Maintenance - 0 .8%; with a “credit” of 2.6% from Recoveries and Overhead.
…since the Board of Supervisors must approve the budget in July, one can assume that your Supervisor understands it well enough to explain it to you if you have any questions.”
The expenses of the 52 city departments are grouped into 6 broad categories, plus the behind-the-scenes catchall of “General City Responsibilities” that funds the expenses we voters approve such as GO Bond debt service, retirees health benefits trust fund, reserves, grants, and many more obscure fiscal costs. The table shows the proposed budget allocations (all amounts are rounded) with the number of funded positions. Please note that the most often cited category of “where your taxes go” - Culture and Recreation (libraries, parks, museums) - has the least amount of funding.
If you need more detail on the budget, the whole thing is online through the Controller’s Office website. Also, since the Board of Supervisors must approve the budget in July, one can assume that your Supervisor understands it well enough to explain it to you if you have any questions.
Ms. Wuerfel is a government fiscal analyst and served for 9 years on the Park, Recreation, Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC).
There are plans afoot (or should we say a-car) to make northbound traffic on 19th Avenue more congested than it already is. The MTA is floating plans to move the bus stop for the northbound #28 - 19th Avenue bus and the northbound #29 Sunset bus, to a small sliver of land inside Golden Gate Park (GGP).
Currently, these buses stop at the gas station on 19th Avenue, where there is a parking lane for them to pull out of traffic. Sometimes two #28 buses at a time are lined up there. When the #29 bus is added to the mix, three buses can arrive at the same time.
Putting a bus stop inside GGP with the attendant new paving and bus shelter, is yet another loss of our precious parkland. The proposed location next to the magnificent, monumental gates at Lincoln Way and 19th Avenue is particularly inappropriate.
Traffic-wise, it doesn't make sense either. There is no extra lane in the park for buses to pull out of the traffic lanes, thereby stopping vehicles behind a bus. What will be the impact on northbound traffic when two #28 buses together have to stop in the traffic lane going north inside GGP, OR when a third #29 bus is added to the mix?
Intensify this traffic nightmare with the cars that turn right from Lincoln Way northbound onto 19th Avenue, in between pedestrians crossing. How will cars or pedestrians deal with one, two, or three buses stopped in the middle of traffic?
This proposal moves a major bus stop from a well-lighted, visible corner at a 24-hour gas station to an area inside the Park and behind the large corner pillars. How safe will riders feel at night, as they wait for the buses that come — well, when they come.
What about people who transfer from the #28 bus or the #29 bus to the #71 bus going eastbound? With the current bus stop location, they can walk a few feet to the #71 bus without crossing a street. With the new plan, all transferring riders will have to cross Lincoln Way, including those in wheelchairs. Even a new handicap ramp will not diminish the increased risk of this extra crossing at a corner that has what could be conservatively described as having intense traffic issues.
Please let the MTA and Rec and Park know that they need to rethink this plan to gum up traffic and mar a major entrance to Golden Gate Park. You can contact them at: firstname.lastname@example.org or Recpark.Commission@sfgov.org
The Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance is also interested in the public's opinions on this project. Please copy them on your letters. email@example.com
Nancy Wuerfel, Parkside
Great public suggestions to the rescue! At the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) Site Alternatives Workshop on December 9, many practical ideas were put forth to save Golden Gate Park (GGP) from industrialization.
This is a win-win situation. The new proposals illuminate ways of placing the water treatment plant on land already under the jurisdiction of the SFPUC, so that the integrity of the GGP’s valuable parkland will be respected as the cultural and environmental resource that it is. Wildlife habitat will also be preserved by maintaining the many trees slated to be removed to make room for the factory.
The two most attractive ideas are locating the facility either at the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant (OWPCP) on the Great Highway or at the underutilized Sunset Circle parking lot at Lake Merced.
Each location has unique advantages. The OWPCP is the source of the secondary water that will be treated into recycled water, and was the original choice for the plant to produce tertiary level water. More space is needed to manufacture the higher-level reverse osmosis (RO) water. The OWPCP site can also support RO treatment, by splitting the processing units to two adjacent areas. Placing the new facilities next to the effluent source could save construction costs and consolidate operation expenses.
The Sunset Circle site is a little larger than the area needed at the GGP site, so it can produce the same amount and type of water, utilizing a “green” building design for a facility that is integrated into the natural setting. There’s even room for a parking lot or a visitors center. Other bonuses include its close proximity to the Oceanside Plant and direct access to existing roads. Below: Sunshe Circle looking East.
This site’s best advantage is its inland location that reduces impacts from tsunami risk and sea level rise on the new facility. Also, this proposal can save Hetch Hetchy water by directing recycled water to keep Sunset Boulevard green — a savings not part of the current GGP plan.
We can use a parking lot to save a park.
Either alternative location will relieve the ratepayers from forever paying the added cost of leasing park property for the treatment plant. Either will avert delaying the whole project because of the extra time needed to get voter approval to build a non-recreational structure in GGP as required by the Charter, and then to redesign a facility for another site anyways after the measure fails. Below Oceanside looking West.
This recycled water project is already $26 million over budget and 13 months late. Part of this cost overrun is because of the unplanned decision to produce the highest quality of recycled water through RO treatment, a process that is 8 times more costly than producing regular water. The SFPUC has not justified the need for and use of the RO water for general irrigation purposes, much less the extra costs to fabricate it. Even the premier golf course at Harding Park will be using the less expensive tertiary recycled water supplied by Daly City.
Finally, when the free ground water in GGP is siphoned off to dilute our Hetch Hetchy drinking water in the Sunset Reservoir, the entire park’s irrigation will be relying on this very expensive water. This will be like watering the grass with diamonds!
Many other proposals generated at the December 9 meeting are contributing to finding an alternative to using our GGP historic resource and open space. The SFPUC engineers are considering them all and will report back at the public workshop on February 15, 5:30 PM, 4th floor, 1155 Market St. Please join the discussion.
Nancy Wuerfel, a fiscal analyst by profession, has been a member of the Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) since 2002
Harding Golf Clubhouse built from funds intended for the “most heavily populated and most economically disadvantaged area”
The sequence of events that led to the city’s renovation of this classic golf course on beautiful Lake Merced, and its possible give-away to private entities unknown, provides a cautionary tale for all San Franciscans. The Recreation and Park Department’s (RPD) mishandling of golf money—misleading the public about Harding’s future, then making a bad deal for the city with a long-term contract—concludes RPD’s decade of deception.
WARNING Be wary when the government promises to construct a civic improvement by making an agreement with the people, crafted solely to secure public financing support, which the government then subsequently ignores with impunity.
THE DEAL Ten years ago an arrangement fell apart to have a private golf company provide the money to renovate Harding and Fleming golf courses. Subsequently, RPD, golfers, well-intentioned citizens, and politicians crafted a covenant and financing plan to refurbish both courses. The “Guiding Principles” for Harding’s future approved by the Recreation and Park Commission silenced the critics. The promises reassured everyone that the restored site would always remain—first and foremost—a municipal golf course, affordable, available to city residents, and maintained by city gardeners.
The clincher was the city’s “foolproof” self-financing plan: borrow money and repay it from future golf revenue. The “Golf Fund Ordinance” passed, requiring RPD to control all golf revenues and to use that money according to the new law’s clear list of spending priorities through a special city account. The law allowed for procurement of a construction loan to be made from public funds and prescribed how it would be repaid. The Golf Fund could also rejuvenate the other city owned golf courses using the additional income that Harding Park would bring in. Optimistically, even neighborhood parks could benefit from excess golf revenue as the final priority.
THE BAIT AND SWITCH With the key political and monetary elements in place and PGA TOUR experts donating the new design of Harding Park, the project was approved. What could go wrong? Plenty! The initial project cost went from $16 million to $24 million. The course drainage plan was seriously flawed—so much so, that a chunk of the course fell into Lake Merced after the first heavy rain — a $2,435,000 setback. Then, the unexplained size increase of the clubhouse from 10,000 to 20,000 sq ft —a $3,592,000 setback. Then, the maintenance facility had cost overruns—another $1,436,000 setback. Then came a decision to build a new cart barn—$311,000, etc., etc.
The $8.3 million deficit was to be made up from both State bond money and private sources, but contributions fell short. So, $1.4 million was misappropriated from the newly formed Golf Fund to fill the gap. So much for the spending controls. RPD decided NOT to implement the city law protecting the Golf Fund money so it could take what it needed to rebuild Harding. Since RPD’s initial abuse of the Fund, it has continued to ignore the law’s inconvenient management requirements. Next, they claimed that “golf does not make money,” and manipulated the General Fund for subsidies to balance the budget! Recently, RPD decided it “must” create new fees to backfill that hole, ergo charging to enter Strybing Arboretum.
RPD was supposed to manage the Golf Fund to allow for repayment of a portion of construction capital into the Open Space Fund. It was agreed that $18 million ($15 million of State bond funds and $3 million from Open Space) would be borrowed for the project to be repaid with interest. Never mind that the State money was intended to support projects in the “most heavily populated and most economically disadvantaged areas” of the city, it was used instead to pay for the Harding golf project. RPD promised to use the repaid loan money for the original State-specified purposes to benefit the less fortunate, but RPD never did so. Instead this year, they raided this special reserve fund to hand $1 million to the Mayor to offset the deficit.
THE GIVE-AWAY In 2002 the city agreed to bring PGA Championship tournaments to the renewed Harding Park. At the time RPD emphatically stated “the PGA TOUR Championship is a means, not an end” and “the PGA TOUR has never suggested or offered to take over control of the Harding-Fleming golf complex.” But now RPD has invited them to take over managing the $8 million gross revenue Harding golf course by selecting the PGA TOUR as the winner of a contract bid.
RPD has awarded a sweetheart agreement to PGA TOUR Golf Course Properties, Inc. with lucrative incentive payments based on golf revenue. These payments are in violation of the priorities of the Golf Fund Ordinance. It commits the city to daily standards of grounds maintenance the PGA TOUR has yet to define, and the Golf Fund must finance them or suffer the consequences. There are many loopholes and conditions that benefit the contractor to the city’s detriment. The fox is now officially in charge of the chicken coop.
Real accountability in the contract is nonexistent, since the Recreation and Park Commission is noticeably absent from approving key financial decisions, as required by law. It is not even clear who the contractor is, since the PGA TOUR can hand over this Management Agreement to any of its “affiliates” with the mere consent of the General Manager or his designee.
The Golf Fund legislation is not just a good idea, it is the only thing that protects city land from being privatized and preserves it for future public use. The fruits of municipal golfing should benefit the other courses and the adjacent neighborhood parks as we were promised, not an outside contractor. Now is the time to closely examine and revise this new legal commitment the RPD is asking the city to make with entities unknown, that could last indefinitely, and bankrupt the Golf Fund.
Nancy Wuerfel, a fiscal analyst by profession, has been a member of the Park, Recreation and Open Space Advisory Committee (PROSAC) since 2002