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Politics & Policy

Public works estimates $23M increase in cleaning costs, grapples with department split

Block by Block Employee power-washes the sidewalk in front of La Cocina Marketplace on July 10, 2021 | Camille Cohen

At an April 27 committee hearing, city officials and members of the Board of Supervisors wrestled with a major divorce taking place at the heart of city government. 

By October, part of the current Department of Public Works is set to be spun off into a new department called the Sanitation and Streets Department, or SAS for short. The mid-year, reverse merger is a heavy lift for all those involved—and exact implications for costs, services and staffing have yet to be determined ahead of negotiations for the upcoming budget. 

“The uncertainty…has led people to leave,” said Public Works CFO Bruce Robertson at the hearing, citing employee exit interviews on top of high turnover during the pandemic. “That’s actually had an impact on our staffing levels.”

The new sanitation department was created by Proposition B, a measure placed on the ballot by outgoing Supervisor Matt Haney that pitched the new department as a solution for dirty streets and mismanagement at Public Works, which suffered a scandal when its former director, Mohammed Nuru, was charged with fraud. The measure passed in November 2020 with 61% of the vote.

Since last May, Public Works staff have met a total of sixty times to hash out the details of the spinoff. The projected launch date for the new agency is Oct. 1, and governing commissions for both SAS and Public Works are set to form by July 1.

In the meantime, staffers at Public Works have voiced concerns that the breakup simply piles on administrative costs without improving services.

The department breakup will cost an estimated $6 million annually in new administrative costs for SAS, which includes salaries for a new executive team, commissioner salaries and other expenses. The two departments are expected to share certain divisions, such as human resources and technology, for the next two years. 

Because of the timing of the split, budget officials haven’t yet sorted out how much the new department will cost.

The budget for the portion of Public Works that will form the new department is $210 million, but the total budget for the new department is likely to be higher: in addition to the new administrative costs, the $210 million figure doesn’t account for costs that are rising citywide, including labor, fuel and materials.

The new department does not include any new services, but supervisors pointed to trash on the city’s streets and pressed officials to prioritize the new department. 

Robertson estimated an additional $23.1 million in costs in the upcoming budget cycle to pay for various new demands related to street cleanliness, including enhanced street cleaning, enforcement of the Shared Spaces program and a new program abating graffiti on private properties

Supervisor Ahsha Safai urged aggressive hiring of street cleaners for the new agency, suggesting “creative solutions” such as working with union hiring halls. Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who called the hearing, called street conditions a “continuing and unprecedented crisis” and urged the mayor's office to boost funding.

"I think it’ll be difficult to fund at the level presented by the department, but we are weighing this and know it’s a priority we need to consider as part of this budget,” said the mayor’s budget director, Ashley Groffenberger.  

Mayor London Breed is expected to present a proposed citywide budget to the Board of Supervisors by June 1 as part of the city's annual budget process.

Public Works reported nearly 500 vacancies in February, and spokesperson Rachel Gordon told The Standard last week that the new sanitation department may still be running a staffing deficit when it kicks off in October. The city is striving to boost hiring through job fairs and other recruitment efforts. 

“Whether this will be more efficient or more bureaucratic, we will see…it’s still being developed,” Gordon said.