Richmond service providers say large budget cuts will hurt

by Jonathan Farrell

As the economic recession continues, budget woes are on everyone's mind. That is why SF Supervisor Eric Mar gathered the Richmond District community and labor leaders together to foster discussion on ways the neighborhood might be able to raise revenue to offset a city budget in crisis.

More than 40 people showed up at the Richmond Branch Library on Ninth Avenue on May 20. Mar invited local service providers, activists, residents and homeowners together for a community discussion that was "very helpful."

Mar had a panel of four community leaders assist him in facilitating the discussion. They were, Patricia Kaussen, executive director of the Richmond District Neighborhood Center; Chelsea Boilard, family services coordinator from Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth; Kavoos Bassiri, CEO of Richmond Area Multi-Services, Inc., (RAMS); and Michael Tong, labor representative from Service Employees International Union, local chapter (SEIU 1021). All four serving on the panel empathized with the audience when they voiced their frustrations at how the city budget is being reduced and the impact it has upon the neighborhood.

There was some contention expressed about the apparently disproportionate range of salaries and benefits for city employees in various departments; especially concerning the billing of over-time hours. Both the SF Examiner and SF Chronicle have featured stories of city employees receiving increases in salaries and benefits while vital programs and services to the community are being reduced.

As Mar listened attentively and patiently, he insisted the discussion not focus on blaming city departments but rather think of ways to help raise revenue. Among the revenue-raising ideas mentioned was the Hotel Fairness Initiative. The measure, if approved, would close loopholes to allow airline and online booking services to SF hotels to charge tourists fees. The $3 surcharge per night, per hotel room, would help raise millions of dollars for the City.

Tong, Boilard, Kaussen and Bassiri were not afraid to talk about "taxes." Some members of the audience seemed receptive to the idea of charging visitors a little extra to help close the city's projected $522 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year.

But not everyone.

According to SF Examiner columnist Ken Garcia, hotels already charge visitors a lot for the privilege of staying in the City, and adding more taxes would increase the hotel surtax to more than 25 percent for a night's stay. Garcia, and others, like the SF Hotel Council, think the proposed measure, if passed by voters, would do a disservice to hotel worker union members. Since tourism is one of San Francisco's most important revenue veins, anything to jeopardize tourism dollars in a recession might not be the best option.

And then the subject of raising taxes got to the subject of raising "property taxes." Since voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, it has been difficult to consider raising the property taxes of homeowners in California. To adjust or change Prop. 13 would require statewide campaigning.

It was mentioned at the meeting that some estimates project that San Francisco's budget deficit will increase to almost $800 million over the next two years, in large part because of increasing wages and benefits for the city's 26,000-plus employees.

"The city's budget is down to the bare bones," said Tong.

He emphasized that city employees have also suffered, with benefits lost or adjusted and a wage reduction of more than four percent during the recent downturn. Mar and the panel noted that often the "powers that be" do not have a clear picture of what can be let go and what must remain intact. San Francisco has a flair for altruism, which is one reason why people flock to San Francisco, Tong said.

"We have a reputation for being a compassionate city with a strong sense of social justice," he said.

"The budget for any city anywhere can become very politicized," said Kaussen.

"Political powers can push for various causes or concerns. For example, I am advocating for the Richmond District," she said.

The city's portion of the budget for the Richmond District Neighborhood Center has been slashed by $350,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. Tong told the audience: "Budgets are basically spending plans based upon projections." He added it is difficult to predict in advance how much money will be needed and how to spend it.

"The cost of living is so high here in San Francisco," Tong said.

Tong and the other panel members all noted that what gets impacted the most in budget reduction efforts is almost always services, even services that are often the most needed.

"Some districts in the City don't need as many services, while other areas like the Richmond District need more," Tong said.

Bassiri agreed, saying: "In all our programs, RAMS, Inc. provides services and outreach to over 15,000 people citywide, annually."

The funding reduction for the coming fiscal year at RAMS is estimated at $395,000.

"Most of the people served at the outpatient clinic in the Richmond District are mono-lingual and English is not their primary language," Bassiri said. "The capacity to reach this important segment of the population through RAMS services would be a great loss to the Richmond District community, which has a large portion of Asian and Russian people.

"Despite the fact that the SF Department of Public Health generated over $86 million in new revenues, through MediCal billing, etc., over the past year, proposed budget cuts from the city's General Fund will still impact the department," he said.