Hillary Ronen speaks with reporters in San Francisco, Calif. on Monday, June 10, 2019. Gabrielle Lurie/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Juneteenth week begins with the full Board of Supervisors on holiday, but returning for a very brief business session Wednesday. But the real action will be at the Budget Committee, where Departments are promised a dressing-down, as Chair Hillary Ronen is determined to shift priorities in Mayor London Breed’s proposed spending plan.
Late Labor Business
The board will have a special meeting Wednesday morning mainly to approve the memorandum of understanding with the Registered Nurses Unit of SEIU Local 1021, which represents nurses working for the Department of Public Health. Members ratified the contract on June 15. Most labor agreements were approved by the Board on June 14.
Battle Lines Form
At last week’s full board meeting, budget chair and District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen let slip the news that the budget committee had gathered over $1.5 billion in so-called addback requests—the costliest in city history—from various groups. Ronen expanded further on the budget requests during a committee meeting on June 15.
Addback requests are where supervisors cut funds from the mayor’s proposed budget and then reallocate as they see fit, generally to benefit favored programs.
In a somber speech, Ronen described the addback requests as “containing very little fluff” and reflecting basic needs of vulnerable populations grappling with the economic fallout from the pandemic.
She then outlined the course of this week’s meetings, in which the Budget and Legislative Analyst (BLA) will present evaluations of department budget requests. Ronen made it clear that to meet as many addback requests as possible, the BLA will aggressively recommend cuts to line items such as vacant and duplicate staffing positions.
“We will be looking at your line items and will be thinking about those hungry seniors trapped in their buildings because they don’t have elevators,” Ronen said at the June 15 meeting. “We will think of the children who are standing next to their mother buying stolen meats because she can’t afford the food in the grocery store. … Do everything you can to reach an agreement with the BLA. If you do not, we will be considering your budget last in line.”
The reports will be presented at Budget Committee meetings on Wednesday and Thursday. An additional meeting on Friday will include a public comment hearing, giving an opportunity for stakeholders—including nonprofit workers and clients supporting addback requests—to air their concerns.
Meanwhile, there are some transparency issues emerging around the addbacks themselves. A request for the addback list by The Standard was met with a response from Ronen’s office that the list was not available electronically. A source inside City Hall noted that previous budget chairs had made the addback list available early on in the budget process. Last year’s list was published online on June 8, for example.
The addback process has been subject to criticism before. A 2017 City Controller’s report described it as “lacking transparency and in general being a rushed process.” In 202, the Controller and City Attorney were compelled to admonish supervisors that “the board may not use an addback to tell a city department whom to contract with” or “make suggestions intended to influence departments’ award of addback funds.”
It’s nevertheless assumed that the requests generally reflect a feeling at the board that Mayor Breed has placed too much emphasis on reinvesting in and attracting business back to downtown, and addressing the drug crisis in the Tenderloin, especially with more police, over maintaining community hubs and other post-Covid services in the neighborhoods.
Challenges to Breed’s Spending Plan
Mayor Breed’s budget is also under attack from more visible fronts.
District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston announced last week that he would ask for $35 million for teacher housing, rental subsidies and other affordable housing programs such as repairing single-room occupancy hotels. He’s also leading a renewed push to finance “social housing”—Preston’s vision for expanded affordable housing—with funds generated by Proposition I, the real estate transfer surtax approved by voters in 2020. While Preston intended Prop I funds to be earmarked for this purpose, state law doesn’t allow for that and Breed has been using Prop I proceeds for General Fund programs.
Last week Supervisors Connie Chan (District 1), Aaron Peskin (District 3) and Gordon Mar (District 4) introduced legislation taking $118 million out of the city’s rainy day reserves to create an “API Equity Fund” as reparations for past policies that discriminated against people of Asian descent. Proponents say the funding would go to nonprofit groups for community reinvestment—although details about how it would be spent aren’t yet clear.