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City HallThe AgendaThe city's climate plan will cost money; will Breed support progressive taxes...

The city’s climate plan will cost money; will Breed support progressive taxes to pay for it?

Plus: A long-awaited hearing on the city's reparations plan—and a debate over more money for the cops. That's The Agenda for March 12-19


Pretty much everyone involved likes the ideas in San Francisco’s Climate Action Plan. It’s ambitious, addresses climate justice, and calls for some important steps that could help save the planet.

It’s also going to cost a lot of money—and so far, like the city’s affordable housing mandates, this is an issue that policy-makers have avoided.

And if we don’t find funding sources, then most of the plan’s goals will remain words in a report, with no chance of becoming reality.

Young people march for climate action. Is SF serious about its own plan?

Now the Department of the Environment has worked with the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at UC Berkeley to produce a study on funding the CAP. You can read it here; it’s fascinating.

The folks at Berkeley weren’t hampered by politics; they looked at what needs to be done and how much it will cost.

At the low end, what the city needs to do will run $2 billion. At the high end, it’s $21 billion.

I’m guessing most of their estimates are low.

But this is a rich city, and the report has some suggestions for raising that revenue:

–New general-obligation bonds totaling as much as $1.1 billion, which could require changing the current city bond-debt limit to allow property taxes to go up to pay for the bonds.

–A new gross-receipts tax on the biggest companies in town to raise $20 million to $50 million a year.

–A parcel tax based on square footage of property or impermeable surfaces (like parking lots) to raise between $12 million and $25 million a year.

–Downtown vehicle congestion fees to raise $50 million to $100 million a year.

–Higher parking fees to raise $40 million to $60 million a year.

–A carbon tax on commercial buildings to raise $20 million to $128 million a year.

Total new revenue: $147 to $560 million a year.

The plan also calls for the city to take over PG&E’s local power grid. Most of the discussion is about lowering costs, but the last time I ran the numbers, which was some years ago, a municipal power system would be able to cut power rates to local customers—and still bring in $500 million a year in new revenue.

Sup. Myrna Melgar is one of many who want to do this.

But the only way it’s going to happen is if the city uses the power of eminent domain to seize the system. That will take time, and PG&E will fight in court, but if San Francisco had done it ten years ago, we would own the system today. I await the move by the mayor, the supes, and the city attorney to begin that process. (I have been waiting for more than 40 years.)

I don’t entirely agree with all of the tax proposals. In the current world of San Francisco, residential landlords can pass along to tenants 50 percent of property-tax hikes coming from bond debt, so while I’m all in favor of higher property taxes on landlords, particularly commercial landlords, who benefit from Prop. 13, the city would need to amend the pass-through to protect vulnerable tenants and make this a progressive approach. Parcel taxes are imperfect, and parking fees, depending how they’re designed and enforced, can be regressive.

The real solution to raising this kind of money: The state Legislature needs to allow cities and counties to impose income taxes on individuals and corporations. New York and Philadelphia both have local income taxes, which done right are far more fair and progressive than any of the other alternatives. The city could, for example exempt the first $50,000 of income from the tax, and design it to hit hardest on the richest people in town (and there are a lot of them, so even a very modest tax would bring in billions).

But let’s set that aside for a moment. I’m glad to see this report, because it does something that the city has utterly failed to do in the Housing Element debate: It says that we have to raise taxes to solve a pressing, existential problem.

California since the mid-1970s has done nothing but seek ways to force cities to cut taxes on the rich, which is one of the reasons we have a crisis in housing, education, and the environment.

San Francisco voters have defied the trend, over and over, passing local taxes on big business and big landlords to fund, among other things, affordable housing (although Mayor London Breed has refused to spend the money the way the voters wanted).

The Board of Supes Budget and Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the Funding Climate Action Report Wednesday/15. Here’s the question that the supes need to ask:

Does Mayor Breed, who only a few weeks ago talked about cutting business taxes, support the findings of this report? Will she and her administration use their full political capital to raise this new money (and protect tenants by amending the pass-through rules)?

Flip the tax issue to a spending issue: That committee will also consider the mayor’s proposal to spend $31 million on new police overtime. The Police Department is the only city agency that hasn’t been asked to take a budget cut next year, and Breed argues that we need more cops on the street, particularly to make drug busts in the Tenderloin.

In essence, she’s asking the board to put up a big chunk of money for a department that has overspent a generous budget already to fund a War on Drugs that has been a failure for more than 40 years.

It takes eight votes at the full board.

And just to add to the debate: The Government Audit and Oversight Committee will consider Thursday/16 a $3 million settlement to pay for injuries that Jose Chavarria says he incurred when he was run over by a police car.

According to his lawsuit, Chavarria was detained by local cops at a bus stop at Geary and Webster Aug. 24, 2019, when a police car crashed out of the street and hit him and one of the officers near him. He sustained multiple injuries that, he claimed, loss of current and future wages.

That brings the cost of lawsuit settlements because of SFPD abuse to $23 million since 2019. That’s only a little less than the cops now want for overtime.

The full board will convene as a Committee of the Whole Tuesday/14 to hear the city’s draft reparations report. The hearing on the draft, which you can read here, was moved from Feb. 7 to this week after Sup. Shamann Walton, who has been pushing this issue for years, was stuck out of town because of a flight cancellation.

The rightwingosphere has already tried to make this into a national issue, attacking the city for even considering the idea that the legacy of racism, both nationally and locally, is so deeply ingrained that our society needs not only to talk about it but to take real, substantive action.

That hearing starts at 3pm.

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
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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