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San Francisco ‘cop tax’ debated at tense city hall meeting

Supervisor Matt Dorsey listens during a City Hall hearing in January 2023.
Supervisors Dorsey listens at a hearing at San Francisco City Hall on Jan. 11. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Turmoil over a ballot measure originally intended to boost San Francisco police staffing continued at a tense City Hall meeting, as debates ensued over the merits of committing funds to officer recruitment during a fiscal crisis. 

Weeks ago, Supervisor Matt Dorsey proposed a charter amendment that aimed to add around 100 police officers per year, and offer generous signing bonuses to new recruits, until the department is fully staffed. But pushback over the measure’s price tag—the Controller’s Office estimated the effort could cost between $120 million and $300 million over five years—fueled an amendment by Supervisor Ahsha Safaí that tied the plan to a “future tax.”

At a Monday meeting of the Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee, Dorsey derided Safaí’s change as a “cop tax” and a “hostile amendment,” saying that most San Franciscans would expect police staffing to be funded through existing tax dollars. 

In the text of the amended measure, the specified staffing levels are contingent on "the Controller’s certification that a future tax measure passed by the voters will generate sufficient additional revenue." A separate section refers to a "new or modified tax" that could support the staffing.

After the committee tacked on Safaí’s amendment last week, Dorsey—along with Mayor London Breed and co-sponsors Supervisors Joel Engardio and Rafael Mandelman—dropped his support for the measure and announced plans to introduce a scaled-down version at the board. 

“The original proposed amendment would have allowed voters to decide how their own existing dollars are prioritized,” Dorsey said. “Most San Franciscans will be offended by this political ploy.”

Safaí sniped back that Dorsey himself voted for the amendment—accidentally, as Dorsey later acknowledged—and said Dorsey was “still learning” how to be a supervisor. 

“Give him some time; he will learn how to be a legislator,” Safaí said. “We are in a fiscal crisis. And when I say crisis—if you were part of this process last year, … this mayor proposed cutting funding for child care services; she cut funding for food services.”

San Francisco Supervisor Ahsha Safai speaks at a City Hall hearing in January 2023 as Supervisor Matt Dorsey listens in the foreground.
Supervisor Ahsha Safaí speaks at San Francisco City Hall on Jan. 11. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

Much like last week’s meeting, union members packed the City Hall chambers to urge supervisors to fund other positions beyond just police officers, such as 911 operators, emergency room nurses and fire department staff. A smaller group of speakers, which included representatives of local business groups, voiced support for Dorsey’s original measure. 

The San Francisco Police Department has roughly 1,475 full duty officers, well below a recommended staffing level of 2,074, according to a presentation by police. A wave of retirements is expected to diminish staffing further, Dorsey said. The $75,000 signing bonuses are intended to help the department better compete with neighboring jurisdictions.

Safaí said he was confident that voters would pass the amended charter amendment and he was "sorry" Dorsey took his name off the measure.

“We can’t put vital services against one another,” Safai said.

He added that the funding could potentially come through restructuring an existing tax instead of a new tax. In an interview last week, he floated the Overpaid CEO Tax—which imposes an extra tax on companies with large disparities between executive and median worker pay—as one possibility.

The committee forwarded the amended ballot measure to the full board, where it will be considered in the coming weeks.