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Monday, January 30, 2023

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City HallThe AgendaBooms, busts, PG&E and the bloated police budget

Booms, busts, PG&E and the bloated police budget

Every city agency has to face cuts—but not the cops? And when will the city move to seize PG&E's grid? That's The Agenda for Jan. 15-22

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I’ve lived through a lot of booms and a lot of busts in San Francisco, that being the state of the city, and I have always argued, counter to the mainstream narrative, that the busts can be better than the booms.

Economic downturns mean higher unemployment, and lower tax revenue for the city, which always seems to mean cuts in social services. That’s a big problem for working-class people.

On the other hand, busts also mean lower, or at least more stable, housing prices, and for at least half of the residents of the city, particularly working-class and low-income people, housing costs are by far the most important element in their economic stability.

The cops appear to be exempt from the mayor’s cuts

And booms are pretty much a disaster for anyone who isn’t a property owner/investor or very rich.

I was glad to see the Examiner’s Lincoln Mitchell make the point in a Jan. 11 oped:

So much of what San Francisco contributed to the rest of the world from roughly 1960 to 2000 would not have been possible if the local economy had been booming that whole time.

The gay rights movement, the women’s, Black, Native American, Chicano liberation movements, the music and social changes that have emanated from The City could not have taken place in a San Francisco that was so expensive that everybody had to work all the time just to make rent, and where there were no empty or cheap spaces to rehearse, hold meetings or concerts or otherwise put culture and politics, rather than commerce, at the center of life.

In recent years, as rents went up, lower income people were forced out, which moved San Francisco’s politics rightward, making it a less appealing destination for the kinds of migrants who have contributed so much to this city, and beyond, over the years. The result of this was that large parts of San Francisco began to feel like just another affluent North American or European city — not least because of the political energy and financial power seeking to make The City become just that.

So the crash of the downtown office market, the exodus and layoffs in the tech industry, and the general sense that the city is heading toward a recession is bad—but the alternative is often worse.

The Board of Supes isn’t doing much this week, since the full board meeting is cancelled for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday and the committees are mostly waiting for Board President Aaron Peskin to appoint new members, which should happen this week.

(His appointments will be fascinating; under Shamann Walton, progressives controlled every key committee, but Peskin got elected with the votes of the moderates and conservatives.)

But the Local Agency Formation Commission, which is often ignored by the major news media, holds a hearing Friday/20 on PG&E’s safety record and state oversight, and it could shed light on why the city needs to take over the local grid.

After decades of PG&E political dominance, there’s a remarkable consensus at City Hall these days that the private utility has failed us, and that the city ought to invoke its rights under the Raker Act and take over the system.

All the pieces are in place. PG&E is reeling. The Public Utilities Commission has the right to issue revenue bonds to finance the buyout.

Several years ago, Mayor London Breed and then-City Attorney Dennis Herrera offered PG&E $2 billion for the local grid; the company refused.

Herrera is now the head of the PUC.

The next step is to file the legal documents to seize the system by eminent domain. Lafco would probably need to do a financial study to look at how much the system is worth and what the city can pay and still make the deal work.

The hearing on public safety starts at 10am.

Mayor Breed has asked all her department heads to look for at least five percent cuts for what’s expected to be a difficult budget year.

The Police Department apparently doesn’t count.

The Police Commission will consider and take public comment Wednesday/18 a draft of the department’s budget for the next two years, and there’s nothing resembling a five percent cut.

In fact, the department is seeking $11 million more in Fiscal 2024 than Fiscal 2023. The total budget would grow from $714 to $725 million. That’s up $68 million, or more than ten percent, over 2022. The General Fund reliance—the area the mayor is targeting for cuts—would go from $561 million in 2022 to $622 million in 2024.

Chief Bill Scott says his department is understaffed. Interestingly, calls for service are down more than 20 percent since 2019, as is total crime—although some areas of crime clearly rose during the pandemic, particularly property crimes.

So this will be a challenge for the progressive majority on the commission: Does the city really need to spend $725 million on the police when so many other areas are getting cut?

And it will be a challenge for the Board of Supes Budget and Appropriations Committee, which will have to sign off on the entire budget and will have the change to challenge the mayor’s priorities, which include more law enforcement.

The Police Commission meeting starts at 5:30pm.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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