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Politics & Policy

San Francisco’s top budget official is resigning after 26 years. Here’s why

Ben Rosenfield, city controller for San Francisco, poses for a portrait at San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 14, 2023. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

San Francisco Controller Ben Rosenfield has announced that he will step down in February 2024, ending a long tenure working for the city that spans 26 years and five mayoral administrations. He’s served as controller since 2008. 

Rosenfield’s departure comes at a difficult time for San Francisco, which is still recovering from the effects of the Covid pandemic. As controller, he also presided over a yearslong economic boom that helped grow the city’s budget to $14 billion and countless audits and investigations related to public integrity and fiscal health, earning him widespread respect at City Hall.  

In an interview, Rosenfield shared some the highs and lows of his 26-year career, what he’s considering doing next and why the city may be better prepared for its coming fiscal crisis than you think.

The Standard caught up with Rosenfield shortly after he gave notice Thursday and asked him about his long tour of duty at City Hall. This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

You’ve worked for five administrations, four as controller, and now you’re leaving. It’s been a long ride, but why now? 

Frankly, it’s kind of a personal choice. This job has been fantastic, and I love the people I’ve worked with and the things I’ve worked on. But it’s also true I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’m about to enter my 27th year with the city, and almost all of those have been working on the city’s finances and budgets, almost all of them out of central offices. As great as this has been, it’s the right moment of my life to take a step back, slow down a little bit and figure out what my next chapter looks like. I started in the city when I was 23. This has been my professional life, and I’m kind of looking forward to thinking about what the next adventure is.

How different are San Francisco’s current financial straits from past downturns, such as the 2000 dot-com bust and the 2008 recessions? How different is the way out? 

I was budget director during the dot-com bust. I actually started three weeks before 9/11.  I started my first term as controller just before the Great Recession. And then my second term as controller, not long into it, came the pandemic. I’ve been through a few cycles of shocks.

This one feels different in a couple of important ways. I think the Great Recession and the dot-com bust were really rapid recessions that impacted San Francisco almost overnight, causing huge amounts of revenue loss.

I think this one is a little bit different. What we’re dealing with fundamentally is the shift in how work is performed in the world and how that impacts cities. Because we relied on office [work], and because of the makeup of our economy, we’re more severely impacted than many places working through the same challenges. There’s still uncertainty about that, but we know that this economic shift with the pandemic is longer-lasting. And it’s a different shape this time—frankly, a re-basing of what our economy looks like, at least for the short term. 

But the other truth about this time versus the previous two is that the city was better prepared going into it. Walking into the dot-com bust, the city had very narrow reserves and had not done as good a job building up a cushion during the dot-com boom as it should have. And then the same was true leading to the Great Recession in 2008. We learned a lot of lessons from those two things as a city.

I’m proud to have worked on these things with many other people. But after that experience of working through a recession and not just not having adequate reserves or protections in place to guard against the financial damage, we did a lot of work to change how the city approaches its finances.

Voters approved ballot measures that many of us, the mayor and the board, worked on at the time to shift the city to a two-year budget and to require a financial plan. So the city entered the pandemic in better financial condition than it had been at any time since Prop 13 passed in 1979. We were better prepared for the pandemic than we had been in those two previous recessions. 

Looking ahead over the coming years, I believe we’re better prepared for it. We bought ourselves some time that the mayor and the board can use to make rational steps to arrive at the other side of that.

Ben Rosenfield, city controller for San Francisco, works at his desk at City Hall in San Francisco on Feb. 14, 2023. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

What would you say was the high point of your career with the city?

I’m proud to have worked on not just preparing but also helping mayors, boards, and budget directors prepare annual budgets. That’s the kind of routine thing we have to do every year, but also to really work above and beyond that, rewriting a lot of the financial planning rules that the city operates under. 

I oversaw the development of the city’s first 10-year capital plan. I participated with [Mayor Ed Lee] and supervisors on a ballot measure that shifted the city to a two-year budget. I’m glad they brought forward reserve policies that change how we plan for our finances. I worked with many people, like [former Supervisor Tom Ammiano] on the rainy day reserve, [former Supervisor and City Attorney David Chiu], and others on shifting to a two-year budget cycle. 

If I were going to pick one other thing I’m proud of for my time here, it’s the Controller’s Office itself. I stepped into this role and followed Ed Harrington—controller for 17 years before that, and a mentor and kind of an idol to a generation of us that had worked for him and around him. 

It’s daunting to kind of step into a role with someone who’s done that much great work and such dynamic work for that period of time. I think we have fantastic people here every day doing great work—a lot of it completely invisible to the second floor of the building—which is as we would want it. It’s been an honor to work with this great group of people on just making this place work. It’s been dynamic for me, and that’s been a big joy.

Any low points in your time at City Hall that you’d be able to identify?

I’m sure I could with more time. It’s the flip side of the coin. I think about this job, which has been so fun; you have a really broad responsibility to help mayors and boards and the city as a whole work better. The flip side is … that’s a lot. 

It can feel too much at times, and that’s part of the feeling for me about being ready to move on to something else, to shift a little bit in my life, and having a bit more time for my family and those around me.

What’s next for you? Are you running for mayor?

[Laughs] No. I’ve worked in this space for my professional career. I’m really looking forward to having a bit of time and space to think about what the next thing is, how to contribute and where I can help. I don’t know what it is yet. We have a four-month calendar for the mayor and the board to help whoever’s next transition into this role. The benefit to me is it will really give me a bit of time to think about what else is out there.

I know a couple of things. I’m raising a family here. I love this place. I’m not leaving San Francisco, and I know I want to work in or around public service. But beyond that, I’m really looking forward to thinking and exploring what’s next.