Originally posted at Beyond Chron.
By Randy Shaw.
Unlike progressives in Washington DC, San Francisco has no Republicans blocking progressive spending priorities. But despite the city’s booming economy, tough choices remain about how the budget pie is divided.
The good news about the San Francisco budget starting July 1 is that layoffs, pay freezes, and massive social service cuts will not be on the table. Fueled by a tech industry that some nonprofit activists wish would leave, San Francisco has the healthiest economy of any major city.
But the availability of new money means that the competition for funds will be intense. The upcoming budget debate should also answer important questions about the city’s priorities.
Higher Salaries and Benefits for Whom?
The biggest budget question is how much new money the city should devote to raising salaries and benefits for city and nonprofit workers paid under city contracts. SEIU Local 1021 and other city unions want more compensation for their members, many of whom feel that it’s time to make up for years of going backward during the 2008-2011 recession.
The city’s public employees are positioned to get better contracts in election years because their endorsements and campaign contributions in the form of money and volunteers influences Supervisors and mayors up for re-election. In 2014, SEIU gave its sole endorsement to David Campos in the local Assembly race and did not give a second spot to David Chiu. So Chiu is certainly not beholden to SEIU workers at the expense of other progressive constituencies, which could impact the allocations.
SEIU 1021 will wage the most visible budget campaign, as it has 13000 city workers, 2000 nonprofit workers and ample staff to promote their interests. But what interests me most —-since the workers in the organization I head are nonprofit SEIU members—is how the union’s rhetoric about economic inequality will apply to its advocacy for two sets of city workers currently receiving vastly different levels of compensation.
Recall the battles over how much city workers should contribute to their pensions? Well, nonprofit workers paid by city contracts have no pensions.
Rising health care costs for city workers? Few nonprofit workers paid by city contracts even get coverage for their spouses or dependents (my organization, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, is among the exceptions providing such).
City workers get paid much higher salaries for the same work performed by nonprofit workers, which is why so many city services—and particularly the huge worlds of homeless and AIDS programs—are contracted out. This should mean that SEIU tries to close this huge gap by gaining greater benefits for its lower-income nonprofit members.
But based on past experience, SEIU’s rhetoric about inequality and economic fairness will again give way to nonprofit staff getting less in actual new dollars and benefits than their already much higher paid city worker colleagues. I would love just for once to be proved wrong on this point.
And just to be clear, the highest and most questionable city worker salaries—like the vast majority of overpaid management positions and the $80,000 starting salary for police officers— are not even part of the upcoming SEIU budget battle. SEIU has to wage these fights because, unlike city managers and the police and fire unions, their workers must mobilize to make gains.
Expanding Programs, Services
The labor deals determine how much money is left for new programs and services. Here are some that should have broad support:
*additional homeless outreach workers, with at least five additional (ten total) in the Tenderloin and Mid-Market. The lack of such workers requires police officers to deal with people sprawled out on sidewalks, which is a poor use of their time.
*design improvements, physical changes, and additional cultural programming in UN Plaza. This is crucial for Mid-Market’s revitalization, and the city cannot keep waiting for a wealthy donor to embrace UN Plaza as has occurred in many of New York City’s parks and plazas.
*add millions for streetlights. As part of our effort to get the Tenderloin the same number of streetlights common to most residential neighborhoods, I learned the city only had money for one new streetlight a year! We’re getting 135 Tenderloin streetlights funded through CPMC, but shouldn’t well-lit streets be a top city priority? I know Supervisor Wiener made a deal to get millions more for streetlights, but more funds are needed. Streetlights should be seen as a key pedestrian safety issue.
*fund the increased rental costs for spaces operated by nonprofit city contractors. With rents rising everywhere and competition for space tougher than ever, the city’s standard 2-3% cost of doing business falls short.
*increase funding for neighborhood cultural programs. When Carmen Chu was D4 Supervisor, she told me about a great outdoor movie program in the Sunset. But the program had a limited selection of films due to the rental costs, and the total project budget was so low that a really popular community-building experience for families was limited in scope. I know Precita Park in Bernal Heights also has a great outdoor film event. Everyone loves watching the World Cup or World Series in Civic Center Park, so why not allocate money for a summer film series, free Shakespeare, or other activities in Civic Center Park and other public spaces that people can attend for free? Such funding does not happen because there is no powerful interest advocating for it—maybe someone reading this will become that driving force.
*invest in Invest in Neighborhoods/SF Shines. The Mayor’s two popular programs to revitalize neighborhood businesses are widely popular and are widely praised. So the budgets of both programs should be doubled so that more communities and businesses can benefit.
*maintain Ellis eviction defense funding. The mayor doubled the spending for Ellis eviction legal representation, but the money is currently slated to end in June. Unfortunately, Ellis evictions will continue. This program, which my organization operates, should be funded at current levels until we win the state law changes that would sharply decrease Ellis evictions by the end of 2015.
There are many more priority budget needs than can be discussed in a single article. And those with great ideas are encouraged to share them with our readers.
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Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His new book is The Activist’s Handbook, 2nd ed.: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century.