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Budget Transparency

San Francisco is facing an unprecedented budget deficit and a public health crisis on our streets. During last month’s budget negotiations, as chair of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, I worked to ensure our City’s budget process would bring accountability and transparency to our city spending, refocus our efforts on providing quality and timely city services, and deliver a San Francisco budget that allows all San Franciscans to thrive.

We must face the moment, but also look to the future to help our economy and its residents recover.

Every year in June, the mayor presents her budget to the Board of Supervisors to begin its work, combing through the mayor’s proposed budget. This year, a priority for the Board was to restore millions in funding that the mayor had cut for food security, children, youth and families, and housing and homelessness.

As Budget chair, my approach to tackling our City’s overwhelming budget deficit and meeting the demands of our City was to hold city departments and ourselves accountable for the deliverables of city services, demanding transparency about city operations and spending.

To ensure city departments were delivering services in an efficient manner, I analyzed our city departments and their budgets in three categories.

For our public safety departments, city departments like police, fire and the department of emergency management, I looked for their budgets to include a baseline budget for daily operation but also a budget that is adaptive and flexible enough to include contingencies to tackle crises and disasters like gun violence, wildfires, storms and earthquakes.

And when I think of city departments providing general services, like those under the purview of our city administrator, or city departments like the SF Public Works Department, Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection, I expect stabilized spending and budgeting to keep the City’s daily operations efficient and consistent.

When I think about city departments like the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families and the Department of Early Childhood, those are investments in our future, and they should be increasing their budgets and continuing investments and resources for our children and youth. After all, they are our future.

To balance all three categories, I reviewed our overall spending for government efficiency to reduce costs that don’t contribute to core city services. Through the Board’s budget process, I combed through non-personnel spending for all city departments to ensure the departments were budgeting overhead costs wisely.

I also worked with my colleagues to review the departments’ deliverables of all programming and contracts, and considered eliminations or phase-outs if there were no demonstrable results according to contract terms or performance audits – especially for those that did not meet their goals for more than two fiscal years. Additionally, we weighed scaling back spending that our departments took on during the pandemic, and halting spending increases for city departments until we have a better forecast of our tax revenues.

Earlier this year, the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office, Mayor’s Budget Office and the controller published a five-year budget outlook update that highlighted policy decisions our city leadership has prioritized, including annualization of police and public works supplementals, the extension of downtown ambassador programs, maintaining shelter capacity and tax change proposals. These decisions have a significant fiscal impact and are all issues we seriously considered as we worked through this year’s budget process.

We know our budget must also face the crisis of our street conditions head on, while ensuring our taxpayer dollars are efficiently spent on services.

We must address the harm of fentanyl on our community, and the realities of supply and demand that are deeply rooted in our drug problems. We must be honest about the need for effective public health solutions to lower demand, just as we must be honest about long-term public safety strategies to tackle the challenges of relentless supply. We must target the actual supply sources that are so much more than what meets the eye on our streets.

We also have to recognize that we cannot arrest away the mental health crisis that we are witnessing on our streets. Not only is incarceration inhumane, but it is also not economical. Incarceration takes a toll on our communities, and it has both moral and economic costs for all of us. When we invest so much in our system to provide services and support, yet we see so little results in return, we must ask the tough questions about accountability.

A system that lacks accountability and transparency, whether it’s criminal justice or public health, is what is really killing people.

We need to refocus our government on what we are charged to deliver – quality and timely core city services. That is what our residents, businesses and communities demand, whether we are talking about downtown economy, business growth or vibrant neighborhoods. An efficient and transparent city government is what will bring us the recovery that we deserve.

These are the guiding principles that weighed into our considerations as we worked to produce a budget that reflects the shared priorities that we collectively fight so hard for.

This article was published in the Richmond Review in July 2023.

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