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News + PoliticsCity HallMayor's budget: The real scrutiny starts

Mayor’s budget: The real scrutiny starts

Gut the Ethics Commission. Defy the Housing Element. Undermine collaborative code enforcement. The supes are not happy.

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The supes have begun their close scrutiny of the mayor’s proposed budget, and a few themes are emerging:

—A majority of the Budget and Appropriations Committee is clearly, and vocally, unhappy with some of the mayor’s budget cuts.

—The cuts will impact some critical departments, including the Ethics Commission, which could lose 40 percent of its staff.

—The Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development essentially defunded the Small Sites Acquisition Program and made all of its General Fund cuts by reducing community grants.

—The cuts to housing programs directly contradict the promises the city made in its Housing Element.

And this was just from one of the first hearings.

Sup. Hillary Ronen said she won’t vote for a budget that guts the Ethics Commission. Photo by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith

One of the first departments presenting at Wednesday’s hearing was Ethics, which faces pretty dramatic cuts.

Gayathri Thaikkendiyil, the acting director, presented the hard cold facts:

Over the next two years, 47 percent of the Ethics staff positions would be cut. All campaign-finance compliance positions would remain vacant for two years. Online tools allowing the press and public to track campaign-finance activity would be discontinued for the November, 2024 election. The investigative staff would drop 50 percent.

“It takes a lot of chutzpah to present a budget like this that guts Ethics,” Sup. Hillary Ronen said. “You are going to gut Ethics until it’s ineffective.” She noted that the city has been facing “the worst [local] ethics scandal in this country” and that under Breed’s plan, reporters and activists would be unable to keep track of where all the campaign money is going in the crucial fall election.

“I will not vote for any budget that guts our Ethics Department.”

Chair Connie Chan noted: “Sup. Ronen speaks for all of us in defending Ethics.”

After Eric Shaw, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, made his presentation, Sup. Dean Preston raised a question:

Why did the presentation ignore the $20 million cut that essentially eliminates the Small Sites program?

This is money that allows the city to buy and take off the market buildings when tenants are threatened with eviction and displacement. It’s proven to be a relatively inexpensive and highly effective way to keep renters in their homes, and in the long term, it moves rental housing from the private market into a land-trust structure that makes that housing permanently affordable.

Although Shaw gave a response suggesting that there’s still a little money left in the existing fund, Preston asked directly: Are you defunding the small-sites program?

Shaw: Yes.

So there’s that.

But there’s a larger issue here: The city has promised in its Housing Element to provide for the construction of 46,000 new units of affordable housing in the next eight years. The mayor signed off on that; so did the supes. That document was turned over to the state, which has approved it and is supposed to hold the city accountable for its implementation.

But the implementation is never going to happen.

Preston: “This is three times higher than the city has ever produced. With dramatically increased goals, with would expect dramatically increased resources, and we aren’t seeing that.”

More: When Preston and other affordable housing advocates met over the years with Shaw to seek more funding for housing, the response was that the city doesn’t have enough money.

That’s why the activists went to the ballot to pass Prop. I, which has collected nearly $250 million for housing—none of which has been spent on housing.

And the folks at MOHCD haven’t uttered a peep of protest.

“When the police say they don’t have the money they need, there’s a full-court press. When we are not on track for affordable housing, there is not a whimper,” Preston said.

So the mayor, and her housing experts at MOHCD, have refused to appropriate the Prop. I money despite a vote of the people and a supermajority vote on the board.

“This is effectively depriving hundreds, maybe thousands of tenants a chance at stable housing,” Preston said.

Shaw said that much of the funding for the department comes from outside sources, including federal and state grants. So it was hard to find ways to cut its general fund reliance.

The result: $1.5 million in cuts to community-based organizations.

Sup. Shamann Walton asked if those grants were the only source of general-fund spending; it turns out they are not.

“You didn’t eliminate anything else?” he asked. “You couldn’t cut a pencil or two?”

All of the committee members agreed—as did the head of the Department of Building Inspectionthat the cuts to a code-enforcement program is a bad idea. That discussion was continued until after the Building Inspection Commission considers a fee increase plan.

A final note: Under questioning from the supes, the mayor’s budget director said that there are now seven full-time positions in the Mayor’s Office dedicated entirely to media communications and PR.

Seven.

When I started in this business, Dianne Feinstein had two. Art Agnos I think had one press person. Now the mayor needs seven.

And with all of those people, I can’t get so much as a comment out of the office, much less access to basic information.

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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