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Politics & Policy

Garbage out: Supervisors seek to sweep away new street cleaning department

Yuchun Jin, Department of Public Works worker, stream cleans the sidewalk as he works on Turk Street on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo By Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

By October, San Francisco is set to have a new, voter-approved sanitation department dedicated to keeping city streets squeaky clean. But a closer look at the costs of the process by some members of the Board of Supervisors has triggered a possible reversal: This November, voters may be asked to undo the move.

Last month, supervisors Aaron Peskin and Connie Chan introduced a ballot measure that would unwind much of Proposition B, a measure passed two years ago that required the Department of Public Works spin off some of its operations into a new Department of Sanitation and Streets, and to create commissions overseeing each department.

Advertised as a solution for both dirty streets and dirty laundry at Public Works, which was at the time mired in scandal around then-director Mohammed Nuru, Prop B passed with over 60% of the vote. Since then, however, buyer’s remorse has set in among some city staff. 

At a June 15 budget meeting, where supervisors reviewed the budgets for both Public Works and the new sanitation department, acting Public Works director Carla Short detailed the department’s contingency plans should Peskin's and Chan's measure pass. The department is moving ahead on hiring human resources staff for the sanitation department for now, said Short, but she noted the potential for considerable cost savings if Public Works remains one department. The sanitation department's total proposed budget for next year is $158.2 million, including around $7.5 million in administrative and commission-related expenses.

It was the latest turn in a months-long study in unintended consequences as city staff grappled with the realities of splitting Public Works.

At a hearing held on May 2, Public Works staff revealed that the breakup would cost $7.2 million for the first year, and nearly $6 million every subsequent year in duplicative management costs. That was over and above the expected costs of operating the new department—costs that Short flatly told supervisors would “not result in cleaner streets."

Bruce Robertson, Public Works’ chief financial officer, said that the uncertainty of the situation had “led people to leave,” worsening a staffing deficit driven largely by the Covid pandemic. Public Works reported a vacancy rate of 21.7% on Wednesday, a record high for the department. 

On May 17, supervisors approved an ordinance mandating Public Works to provide transitional administrative support for the new agency, but not without qualms: Peskin declared doubts over the plan, saying that “the financial costs may not achieve the efficiencies we had hoped for.” 

It was these concerns that led Peskin, along with co-sponsor District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan, to take the step of introducing a new charter amendment on May 24 to partially undo Prop B. 

Under that proposed amendment, two oversight commissions mandated under Prop B would remain. But the Department of Sanitation and Streets would be abolished, its duties returning to Public Works. 

"Expansion of city government does not always equate to better and more efficient services, which is why I support this Charter Amendment as an effort to increase oversight and reallocate resources and staffing to keep our streets clean,” said Chan in an email to the Standard. 

Peskin stated at a May 24 meeting that he had decided to introduce the corrective measure after talking with City Administrator Carmen Chu, as well as representatives of Laborers’ Union Local 261, which represents workers for Public Works. 

He said that the new measure “would make important changes to Prop B, to maintain commission oversight without the inefficiencies and additional costs. Having two commissions over one department is something that does happen.” Peskin added that he expects “robust discussion” over the measure, which will require approval by a majority of the board by late July to get on the November ballot. 

Meanwhile, Assemblymember Matt Haney, who introduced Prop B back when he was District 6 supervisor and contending with much of the city’s blight, is none too pleased. 

“San Franciscans will be outraged to learn of this misguided effort to undermine the voters' will and dismantle Prop B before it has been implemented,” Haney told the Standard. “The measure was written to ensure true oversight and a laser focus on finally getting the job done on our streets. The city should implement the law, focus on cleaning up the streets, and stop dragging their feet.”