Newsom’s City-Funded Campaign for Governor

It’s amazing what you learn about Gavin Newsom’s budget – after the Budget & Finance Committee starts to hold hearings.  While the Mayor’s public summary released on June 1st implied that Newsom planned to downsize 8% of his own staff, what he actually did was farm out positions and funds to other departments.  We also learned this week that the first things to go in the Mayor’s Office during mid-year cuts last year was (a) money for violence prevention programs, and (b) add-backs by the Supervisors.  Meanwhile, Newsom spends $473,122 to pay the salaries of five press secretaries – more than what he spends on seven liaisons for the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (MONS).  The City has a Department of the Environment with its own Executive Director and 58 staff – but the Mayor’s Office has a Greening Director who makes $105,742, along with a Director of Climate Control.  Newsom is opposing Budget Analyst Harvey Rose’s recommendation to cut down his press operation, and even said Tuesday he might veto the Interim Budget (which the Supervisors amended to shift funds away from Police and Fire, and to Health and Human Services.)  If he pursues the latter, the City could be unable to spend money after July 1st – a government shutdown that would doom Newsom’s statewide ambitions.

Newsom announced on June 1st that his budget cut 28% of the Mayor’s Office, a claim that was quickly debunked after Beyond Chron read the 430-page summary.  His proposal would increase the Mayor’s Office budget by 60%, although Newsom’s Budget Director has clarified that most of that money comes from affordable housing funds from the federal stimulus.  If you look at the level of staff, there has indeed been shrinkage – albeit only by 8 percent.

Yesterday, the Board of Supervisors’ Budget Committee began the task of reviewing each agency’s budget – with presentations by Department heads, and recommendations by Budget Analyst Harvey Rose.  When you fine-tune numbers beyond what was only a summary, a more accurate picture starts to appear.  The Mayor’s Office budget has little to do with responding to a fiscal crisis where we “share the pain,” and more to do with preparing Newsom’s run for Governor.

First, let’s talk about the actual size of the budget.  It’s true that the Mayor’s Office will have 8% fewer employees (a net loss of five positions), and there has been a $15 million influx in new federal funds to the Mayor’s Office of Housing.  But what’s also true is that twenty positions are being reassigned out of the Mayor’s Office – twelve to the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, and eight to Department of Children Youth and Families.  These duties being transferred comes a natural $8 million cut to the Mayor’s Office – much of it in grant funds.  On balance, the Office isn’t being cut it all.

In December, Newsom announced that the City was in a financial crisis – and so  mid-year cuts were inevitable.  What did he cut out of the Mayor’s Office?  Eighty-one percent of the $650,000 cut was grants to non-profit organizations (including violence prevention money), even though the category of “assistance and grants” is less than half of his department’s budget.  “Add-backs” from the Board of Supervisors (i.e., programs the Mayor had cut that the legislative branch restored during budget season) were also targeted – such as $65,000 for Filipino employment services in the Excelsior.

So what did he not cut?  Who are the sacred cows in the Mayor’s Office?

It’s been a joke for years that Gavin Newsom governs by press release.  But now that he’s running for Governor, his City-funded media operation has become obscene.  Director of Communications Nathan Ballard makes $141,700 a year, while his deputy Brian Purchia gets $105,742.  The Mayor has three additional press people – one for Latino media and one for Asian media (who each get paid $80,626), along with a Communications Officer who makes $64,428.  Budget Analyst Harvey Rose has recommended that the last three positions be cut – as well as two unfilled press positions.  Newsom has opposed this suggestion.

It goes to show Newsom’s priorities – when he collectively pays his five-person press team more than seven liaisons at the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services.  If San Francisco taxpayers are asked to pay for Newsom’s political hacks, at least give them something useful to do – such as answer constituent complaints, direct citizens through the City’s bureaucratic maze and attend community meetings.  Despite Randy Shaw’s critical opinion of MONS as obsolete (now that the City has a much vaunted 311 Center), their job is to actually serve the people of San Francisco – rather than manipulate the media.

Despite the bad press that Newsom got when he stole funds from Muni to pay Wade Crowfoot’s six-figure salary, both the Mayor’s Greening Director and his Director of Climate Control are still gainfully employed in a deep recession.  What’s truly odd is that the City also spends $11 million to fund a Department of the Environment – complete with its own Executive Director (who the Mayor appoints), and a citizen Commission.  And why does the Mayor have an Education Policy Director on payroll at $122,403 a year – when we also have a Superintendent of Schools, and a Department of Children Youth and Families?

Harvey Rose has provided a list of recommended cuts to the Mayor’s Office that would save about $1 million.  Newsom has only agreed with a tiny handful, such as eliminating one of the vacant positions at MONS.  The Supervisors may have to cut the rest.

Will the Mayor Keep Fighting the Board?

After dueling rallies showcased the City’s competing priorities this week, the Board of Supervisors voted 7-3 to amend the Mayor’s Interim Budget.  Blasting Newsom’s proposal as unfairly placing cuts on public health and human services, the Board took $82 million out of Police, Fire and Sheriff so that all departments “share the pain.”  The Interim Budget is just a placeholder document – so that the City can pay its bills after July 1st, while the Supervisors and Mayor put final touches on the 2009-2010 budget.  But the symbolic message was effective, and will shape the rest of the budget conversation.

The Mayor could veto the Interim Budget, but the practical effect would be that the City government shuts down in July.  Which would be incredibly stupid for Newsom to do.  Like House Speaker Newt Gingrich was blamed in 1995 for causing the federal government shutdown, such a move would be viewed as petty and vindictive – while sacrificing public services in a recession.  It would be a distraction from Newsom’s race for Governor, and damage his career.  The Mayor, however, did tell a Channel 7 reporter on Tuesday he might do it, and is consulting attorneys about the consequences.

Newsom is angry that the Board effectively forced his hand in the budget process, but in a way he is getting his comeuppance.  Back in 2007, after a veto-proof majority of Supervisors appropriated $33 million for affordable housing, Newsom did not sign or veto it – instead choosing to simply not spend the money.  This was apparently legal, because the Supervisors cannot force the Mayor to spend money. All they can do is force him to not spend money (through a de-appropriation.)  In other words, Newsom outmaneuvered the legislative branch on a technicality.  But now, they have done the same.

This piece was first published in Beyond Chron.