The grand finale in San Francisco’s lengthy budget season is perhaps the most dramatic—and the most misunderstood.
That’s the process known as add-backs, an arcane system of making budget changes that’s little known to all but budget wonks and the organizations that participate. Every year, after the mayor submits a budget proposal, the Board of Supervisors’ budget committee makes cuts to the mayor’s proposal and gathers community input to add or restore programs seen as important. What begins with that public outreach ends in the supervisors’ chambers, often with last-minute negotiations extending late at night.
By their very nature, add-backs put the priorities of the mayor and the Board of Supervisors into conflict. And this year’s process put that conflict into especially stark relief.
As Budget Chair Hillary Ronen reached out to the nonprofits that provide many of the city’s relief services—her office used a Google form circulated to community groups—an unprecedented list of requests materialized. They totaled $1.5 billion over two years, the largest list in recent memory.
The requests themselves, which include a cost, a project description, and a suggested department to administer the funding, varied widely. They ranged from the prosaic, like a request for staff at a neighborhood dog park, to the profound: At least 18 requests were food security-related.
The biggest requests came from a few large coalitions that represent community nonprofits, some of whom had received emergency funding associated with the pandemic.
Those coalitions included the Latino Task Force, which was founded in 2020 specifically to distribute relief services during the pandemic; MegaBlack SF, an alliance organized in the Bayview in 2020 to advocate for reinvestment in the city’s Black communities in the wake of the George Floyd murder; and the API Council, which was formed in 2013 as an umbrella group for over 50 Asian American community groups.
Ronen described the process of winnowing down the requests as agonizing, calling them “Sophie’s choices.”
Multiple rounds of review among the Supervisors determined what requests were feasible, with restoring existing programs being a priority. Examples range from $400,000 in funds to continue a free wheelchair repair and maintenance program; to $1 million for a needs-based assistance program for people with HIV who are either homeless, or at risk of losing housing; to $2.6 million to restore funding for 11 employees in support of implementing the city’s Climate Action Plan. (The original ask for the latter was close to $6.3 million).
By the morning of June 27, when final deliberations took place, the add backs had been pared down significantly; by that evening, the final range was in place. Negotiations continued, with requesting organizations present at City Hall and others directly involved in negotiations, until the final list was presented around midnight. The final list of add-backs takes the form of allocations to departments and descriptions of approved add-backs; but because supervisors are barred from explicitly directing funds to specific nonprofits, the requesting organization is simply removed.
The agreed-upon spending plan shifts $88 million in funds from Breed’s two-year budget proposal to add-backs approved by the supervisors’ budget committee, plus additional funds from other sources. Despite that, both the mayor and the board seemed satisfied with the result.
If the process strikes you as byzantine, consider yourself in good company.
Over the years, the add-back process has struck a number of oversight bodies as flawed. In 2017, a Controller’s report recommended that add-backs be restructured to make them “more transparent, policy-focused, and less rushed.” In 2009, the city’s Civil Grand Jury called add-backs a backdoor way of avoiding rules on competitive bidding, writing that “in response to political maneuvering, [the BOS] ignores the competitive process for nonprofits and essentially orders sole-source contracts with the favored nonprofits.” The risk, the report said, is that a nonprofit was included in the budget because it “used its political clout,” not because it meets a department’s needs.
A 2021 letter from the City Attorney highlighted the potential pitfalls in supervisors—who are barred under the charter from interfering in contract decisions—sourcing budget ideas from familiar nonprofits that contract with the city: “When the Board approves an addback to expand funding for existing projects or services performed by entities other than City departments, the Board should not assume that the department will award addback funds to current contractors or grantees to continue their existing work,” said the letter.
Click through the two tables below to explore the biggest addbacks for citywide projects and district projects.