All posts by philting

Help Support GoSolarSF

In San Francisco, great policy still isn’t always enough. Sometimes we need public support to help our friends and colleagues in city government make the right choices.

That’s why the Sierra Club and many others are rallying this morning at San Francisco City Hall at 9:30 AM today (Thursday, May 18) in support of GoSolarSF – the pioneering local solar incentive program that has helped more than quadruple the number of solar roofs in San Francisco in just three short years.

GoSolarSF is creating green jobs, attracting new green industries, helping fight climate change and helping to make our nation more energy independent.

All of that – and a new study that shows adding solar pays for itself by increasing the value of homes. That means that the GoSolarSF program is more than paying for itself in the long run with higher tax revenues captured from the higher valuations of solar homes (once the homes are sold, assessments don’t go up for those who install solar).

So what’s the catch?

Beats me.

But for some reason the SF Public Utilities bureaucracy is digging in their heels – trying to dramatically cut one of San Francisco’s most effective environment efforts and economic development initiatives.

Part of the resistance might just be cultural. The SFPUC is the old water department and its focus is still mostly on tunnels and trenches – not renewables.

But whatever is motivating the resistance – we need to spread the word that San Francisco should continue to fully fund this important and highly regarded program. Just a few facts to consider:

• GoSolarSF has helped Increase the number of rooftop solar energy systems installed in San Francisco from approximately 500 to 2385
• It has helped drive down the installed cost of solar power by 25% by creating more competition and scale in the solar installation sector
• The program attracted over 30 solar companies and organizations to San Francisco and established the City as a solar power leader.
• GoSolarSF has created or retained hundreds of new jobs
• And the solar projects promoted by GoSolarSF are installed at about 10% of the cost of what it would otherwise be if the City had to own the systems outright (a small GoSolarSF incentive unlocks a much larger private customer investment in the SF economy)

With all of the clear-cut benefits associated with the program, it shouldn’t be anywhere near the SFPUC chopping block. GoSolarSF has clearly demonstrated an ability to get San Francisco more while paying less – and that’s the type of program we should be supporting during these challenging fiscal times. Eliminating or reducing a program that is paying for itself in the long run just doesn’t make sense.

If you are in San Francisco this morning – come support this important program at City Hall. Or sign our petition in support of GoSolarSF.

A Simple Way to Make Government Better – Give More People a Chance to Be Heard

There is a little food shop down the street from where I live that seems to know more about using technology than the $6 billion dollar organization where I work.

I work at San Francisco City Hall.

The shop in the Sunset District in San Francisco was having some challenges. People complained on Yelp. The shop owner was kind of mad at first, but then he figured it out. The response was actually helping him understand how to get better. And when he fixed the problems, the neighbors came back.

If we can use technology to make a small business more responsive to the neighborhood, why can’t we use it to make our government better?

The answer is we can.

That’s why I have a pretty simple idea to help make my City Hall more effective and responsive. And I would like to ask for your help in making it a reality.

My idea is to allow more people to talk back to government by being able to make their voices heard at City Hall by submitting YouTube videos that would be heard just like other public testimony.

If you have ever been down to your own City Hall to testify or if you have watched this process on TV you know the problem. What happens now is most of the testimony seems to come from about the same people who either work for government, are lobbyists or work for people who have city contracts or want city contracts.

There is nothing wrong at all with these people making their voices heard. And most of them here in San Francisco are pretty knowledgeable and committed to a better city. The problem is that not enough people can be heard. And a government decision is only going to be as good as the information it was based on.

Right now almost every single Board and Commission, including our Board of Supervisors, meets during the day. So what about the people who work or go to school or just can’t make it to City Hall on a few days notice? What about virtually everyone else?

So here’s a pretty simple – and absolutely free – way of making government better right now.

Let’s ask our government boards and agencies to accept ten minutes of testimony via YouTube, and hear that testimony on equal footing with the lobbyists and activists who can make it to City Hall.

We could make it social. So if more than five videos were submitted, only those with the most “likes” would be shown.

This may seem like a small idea. But it is based on a pretty radical concept – democracy works. The more people can be heard, the better our government will be. And when we open up government to more people, not just the usual suspects, the decisions will be more representative of the rest of us.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog about how we can reset local government. My idea was that one of the most progressive things we can do right now is to make government better.

Using technology to open up government is just a start. And we need to remember that not everyone has Internet access or knows how to make a YouTube video. But it is a big leap forward from the system we have now.

Resetting local government will take many steps. Here’s a pretty big one. Let’s allow YouTube Testimony at City Hall.

If You Agree – Sign the Petition: Yes – I want YouTube Testimony at City Hall

Keep the sunshine on California government

Since taking office, Governor Jerry Brown has been working bravely to knock down California’s dangerous deficit. He’s looking high and low for new funds – from reducing the number of state paid cell phones by half, halting new agency car purchases and by issuing a statewide hiring freeze that could save $363 million.

Gov. Brown isn’t just looking to cut out waste in government. He is also looking to continue collecting vital revenue by extending the Schwarzenegger era tax increases.

In fact, Governor Brown has been just about spot on. But even Jerry Brown can make mistakes – and he will make a big one if he follows through on his proposal to cut the state funds used to support California’s excellent open meeting laws.

In order to clean up California’s fiscal mess, our government is going to have to make some more tough decisions in the months and years ahead. Very important services are going to be cut. And taxes are almost certain to be raised.

Winning public support for these tough choices relies on making sure Californians understand how these choices were made. And thanks to our open meeting laws, we know that the public’s business is conducted in pubic.

But this week Governor Brown has put one of the foundations of a better government on the chopping block. He is seeking to cut several unfunded state mandates including ones that deal with providing notices to the public regarding open meetings of local bodies. Since the passage of the Brown Act in 1953, Californians have been guaranteed the right to attend and partake in public meetings. Cutting this funding will put the law in “legal limbo.”

While it is tempting to look at across the board cuts in times of budget crises, keeping our local governments open, transparent and responsible to the people remains paramount to a successful democracy. That’s why these cuts that are threatening our open meeting laws should be permanently off the table.

An open government is something that we all should demand, if not expect. We need only to look at the scandal in the City of Bell to understand how important the Brown Act – and public awareness – is to an effective and ethical government. The lack of transparency in Bell allowed city leaders to take about $5.5 million from the city. We must learn from the Bell example and make local governments even more open – not less.

When voters passed Proposition 59 in 2004, our Constitution changed for the better. Prop 59 mandated that meetings and records of local governments and officials be accessible to the general public. For that to happen, local governments are required to – among other things – print notices and agendas for upcoming meetings. The state is then required to reimburse them, to the tune of $16.6 million for 2008-2009.

Technically, the funding that went towards reimbursing local governments for photocopying and posting notices and agendas for public meetings was suspended by the legislature in last year’s budget. But Governor Brown is seeking to keep it suspended for the next fiscal year.

But at what cost?

According to the California League of Cities, no city has yet used the loophole of suspended funding to stop following the law. But that could change anytime.

Because of laws like the Brown Act and Proposition 59, California has truly been able to say that we have an open state government that encourages civic participation. This is a cornerstone of who we are as Californians. We understand that cuts must be made, but for the benefit of our state – and our democracy – let’s keep the meetings open and the sun shining in.

Phil Ting is Assessor Recorder of San Francisco. He is working on a state level to organize support for a split-roll tax system. On a local level, he is a candidate for Mayor of San Francisco looking to find ways to promote greater public participation and User-Generated Government.

San Francisco shouldn’t become “parking trap”

We’ve all heard the classic stories about the one-light towns out there that keep the books balanced by keeping the police busy writing tickets.

We don’t usually think of these rural towns as models of a transparent and progressive administration. That’s why we shouldn’t adopt these kinds of “gotcha” revenue-generating tactics here in San Francisco by turning our entire city into a parking trap.

Unfortunately, just this past week the San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Authority announced its plans to instruct our already hard-working traffic officers to increase the number of parking tickets they issue. The revenue from parking tickets – which MTA had projected to be right around $99 million – has fallen short. So now they are setting higher quotas to raise additional revenue.

We certainly do need more revenue in San Francisco. And one of the city agencies that needs additional funding the most is the Municipal Railway. But we need to make sure this new revenue is generated in a way that is fair to all and in a fashion that takes into account a person’s ability to pay.

What’s wrong with the new MTA parking ticket quotas is that they are the exact opposite – they are essentially a tax lottery, with the unlucky paying more than the lucky. They are unfair, with taxpayers fortunate enough to own garages (usually the wealthier homeowners) less affected than those who do not (usually the less-wealthy renters). And at their core, they are regressive, with the very poor paying just as much as the very rich.

As Assessor-Recorder in San Francisco, my job is to make sure we have a fair property tax system. And I have not been shy about taking on some powerful players – like big banks and other politically connected institutions when I thought they were not paying what they owed. Along with a number of others I have also helped form Close the Loophole – a statewide organization dedicated to reforming Proposition 13 so that commercial property owners start to pay their fair share.

These new revenue sources have several important things in common – they take into account the ability to pay and they are assessed in a predictable fashion. Property taxes, assessed fairly, are progressive in the truest sense because the more expensive the property the higher the revenue generated. And when a person buys or transfers property, they can predict what taxes they owe.

San Francisco has been seeing a healthy debate recently about progressive values. Let’s extend this debate to discussing the many problems with regressive and random revenue generation.

We already have some of the nation’s most expensive tickets. And pity to the person who has his or her car towed – the fees can quickly soar to $500 and above. I have been deeply involved in the movement to fight unfair foreclosures, and I know that $500 for many families is the difference between staying in their homes and eviction.

What has crept into this debate is some sense that people are to “blame” for driving and if they get tickets, then they simply should give up their cars or be more careful.

Certainly, we do not want to tolerate violations of our parking laws. And we do want to continue to pursue a city policy that draws people out of their cars with better public transit, smarter planning and walkable and bikeable streets. But enforcement should be based on safety – not new revenue. And, we need to understand that given the state of our Municipal Railway right now, some people simply must drive.

The parent with two kids at two different schools is going to have trouble on a bicycle. People with mobility issues sometimes need to drive. And most of us know others who have no other real choice – like the janitor who reports to work at 7:00PM. These San Franciscans deserve a tax system that is fair and progressive – not a random lottery that targets them to raise revenue.

Let’s certainly raise more revenue. But let’s do it in a way that reflects our progressive values – with a progressive tax system.

You can make the difference in two clicks. First, sign my petition to tell City Hall to tear up the unfair ticket plan. And second, join the movement I have been leading for nearly two years called Close the Loophole and let’s fix what’s broken in Proposition 13 and bring real solutions to San Francisco.

Phil Ting

San Francisco Assessor-Recorder

Selling state buildings now means auctioning our future

Just when you think things can’t get worse in California comes the worst fiscal idea yet from Sacramento – selling off landmark state buildings to plug a fraction of this year’s budget gap, then turning around and renting the space at a premium from the state’s new landlords.

The lame duck Schwarzenegger administration is pushing this scheme to drum up some fast cash. The plan calls for selling 11 state properties comprising some 24 buildings, including the California Supreme Court and state offices in Los Angeles, Oakland, Santa Rosa and Sacramento. A private investment group called California First LLC is set to pay $2.3 billion for our state buildings which, after paying off the outstanding bonds used to construct the buildings, would net the state just $1.2 billion.

But selling these buildings will actually end up costing California’s taxpayers $1.4 billion over the next 35 years, according to the respected and non-partisan Legislative Analysts Office. That’s because, after selling the properties, the state would then have to lease them back to house its workers – at nearly double the current cost of repaying the construction loans. This deal makes such little sense that the report done by the usually taciturn Legislative Analysts Office called it “poor fiscal policy.”

As the current Assessor-Recorder of San Francisco with a background in appraisal, I understand why the private investors are so anxious to ink this deal. They are getting both premium properties priced at the bottom of the real estate market and a built in cash flow from their state governments tenants. They will quickly recoup their investment through the rents alone. That doesn’t even account for the hundreds of millions of dollars in appreciation likely over the next decades.

The investors win. But the taxpayers are faced with a guaranteed loss.

Who would propose such a scheme? Certainly no person with even a basic understanding of economics or investment would make such a deal.

In fact it’s deal only politicians looking for a quick fix could support. Which is why Californians are lucky that concerned citizens have taken the case to court trying to block this scheme. And, they have won a hard fought, but still temporary, injunction against the sale.

These public advocates may have won a legal battle. But the fact that the scheme was proposed, advanced so far, and is still alive shows just how far Sacramento politicians will go to avoid making hard choices.

Our state is virtually bankrupt. But bankrupt ideas are not the answer.  

Let’s keep up the pressure so California can keep these valuable assets. And next time Sacramento tries to make this kind of political calculation, lets make sure they pick up a calculator first. These numbers don’t add up.

Activists as Experts

Yet another reason to be proud of our city is that San Francisco was “crowd sourcing” government long before the Internet era.

On any given day, hundreds of neighbors, activists and well-meaning agitators crowd into hearing rooms to help shape our local government. And over the years – they have shaped it, almost always, for the better.

But in my experience there are two key barriers to making sure elected officials and appointed Commissioners hear the Wisdom of the Crowds – whether those crowds show up in person or online. First, there is always a certain suspicion that the people who come and testify do not necessarily represent the community as a whole. (That’s a challenge we are trying to address with our User Generated Government site, and hope to write separately on that issue in the coming weeks).

Second, and I think most importantly, there is frequently an impulse on the part of the government to bias “expert” testimony over the first-person appeals of constituents – even though these constituents almost always have the greatest expertise on how government decisions will impact their own neighborhoods and families.

It is this perception gap between crowd testimony and “expert opinion” that we are trying to help close with – with a set of features that our community members can use to gain technical expertise on issues.

The personal experiences we bring to government are powerful and important – and they should be highlighted, not diminished. But the crowds engaging government will be even more impactful if they have a sound mastery of the facts, the history and sometimes even the very technical details of government mechanics. The truth is, the more we know, the better we will be at making an impact.

The most important tool is tried and true – the library. Our site is working to highlight those articles, books, and blogs “Worth a Read” so San Francisco activists can gain useful knowledge. If you have good ideas – let us know.

And we are working to give our community members a chance to engage directly with experts – through our online “Ask an Expert” webcasts. Our next webcast is this Thursday at 4pm with Michael Cohen, the former director of the San Francisco Office of Workforce and Economic Development.

Michael is one of those rare people who has both an expert’s grasp of the big picture and a technician’s mastery of the details of government. It was a big loss when he left city government after more than a decade of outstanding service. But we hope his expertise will be a big benefit to our Reset community.

There are some in our community that didn’t always agree with Michael’s vision of economic development. But now all of us can get a chance to draw on his expertise. I hope you can tune in Thursday at 4 or anytime on our site after the event to ask Michael a question about how to make our economy stronger and more equitable.

Phil Ting

[email protected]

User Generated Government

Phil Ting endorses Mark Leno for State SenateDemocrats fought to regain power over the past decade, we have seen a sophisticated online infrastructure develop, mature and help us win elections.

I’ve experienced the tremendous power of the online community with a statewide campaign I’m involved in,, which has quickly organized more than 25,000 Californians to support closing loopholes in Proposition 13.

Thanks to pioneers like Governor Howard Dean, netroots leaders like DailyKos and Calitics and energized social networks, we know how to use online infrastructure to draw attention to issues and campaigns. But as hard as it was to win back control of the White House and Congress, and as hard as it will be to keep control this year, the hardest part isn’t just winning elections – it is making those victories meaningful from a policy perspective.

And that’s why I think we need to focus on closing the gap between the people-powered emphasis of our campaigns and the more elite-driven emphasis of much of our governing style.

For example, as good as our healthcare law is, and as much as it will do for California, I think it would have been much more comprehensive if the President had been paying as much attention to his netroots supporters during those deliberations as he did during the campaign. The reality is that a continued engagement of his powerful online army in the forming of policy would have helped build support for even greater healthcare reforms, like the public option.

We see the same disconnect here at home in California – with a surge of interest and support during campaigns and then a noticeable drop-off in engagement after the ballots are counted.  Part of this is natural. Voters engage during campaigns and then want to get back to their lives and let their elected officials do their jobs.

But part of this drop off happens because many candidates, who ask for help so often during campaigns, largely ignore the communities they have built until the next election.

Frankly, I think we would have a much better and braver government if more people were involved in shaping policy. And using online communities to help identify problems, propose solutions and then stand up to the special interests that so often resist reform is more necessary than it has ever been.

I have said at events in San Francisco that the single most progressive step we can take right now is to make sure government works. From my perspective as a local elected official, I think that when voters see their bus come on time, their school succeed, their libraries open and their parks and playgrounds clean they become much more supportive of a broader progressive agenda that is fundamentally premised on the idea that government can succeed in solving problems.

As I looked around for ways to promote User Generated Government, I didn’t see many models that felt exactly right. There are certainly some good examples out there – but they are either national in scope or they seemed more like ways to gain support for specific ideas rather than a forum to empower an ongoing community.

So, lacking a model I thought appropriate for our local needs, we’ve tried to create our own model. It is called, and it is an experiment in user-generated government on a local level.

We have a long way to go. But already nearly 1,000 folks have joined us in a discussion of policy, to propose good ideas and to offer suggestions about how we can make the community even stronger.

Clearly, this is just a start in one small city. It only includes those who can get online, which is not nearly enough people. It is only focused on San Francisco. And so far, it is only in English (although that will soon be expanded). But it is a start. And we are gathering to celebrate that start this weekend.

If you are in the neighborhood, come by to celebrate the launch of Reset San Francisco this Saturday. And if you have time, stay and help us discuss how we can create a community that does more than win elections. Help us show how online communities can stay engaged to win the most important battles – the fight for better policy.

Let’s Close the Corporate Tax Loophole – Update

(If you’re in LA, check out this event! – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

Our grassroots campaign to close California’s corporate property tax loopholes and reform Prop. 13 is going strong and building incredible momentum.

We now have over 3,000 supporters from all over the state on our Facebook page, thousands of Californians have already signed our petition at (please sign the petition if you haven’t already) and we (finally) launched our Close the Loophole Twitter page. Organizations and individuals from all over the state are lining up to join our effort.

Edit by Brian: More information on an LA event over the flip…

 The calls to reform Prop. 13 are growing louder by the day. Our efforts have been featured in news outlets throughout the state, including KQED, CBS5 News, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the San Jose Mercury News, the Merced Sun-Star and the Sacramento Bee, to just name a few.  Articles calling for a fresh look into Prop. 13 and its destructive effect on California’s current condition (a situation that Calitics has been covering brilliantly) have been published in prominent news outlets throughout the state and the country, from the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle to Time Magazine and the Washington Post. You can find a full archive of articles on our website.

Earlier this month, we convened our first Organizing and Leadership meeting in San Francisco with huge success. Over 120 community leaders and activists attended the  meeting and added their ideas and expertise to the process. Check out the photos and ABC7’s news coverage of the event here.

This Friday, we are hosting an organizing meeting in Los Angeles for our Southern California friends. For all those who couldn’t make our San Francisco meeting, we hope you will join us:


What: Please join ACORN and San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting for an organizing meeting to reform Prop. 13 and close California’s corporate property tax loopholes

Who: Concerned Citizens and Community Organizers

When: Friday, July 31, 6:00 – 7:30 PM

Where: Los Angeles ACORN Office 3655 South Grand Ave., Suite 250

RSVP: On Facebook or email [email protected]

We are building a powerful campaign operation and incredible momentum. If this year’s budget crisis taught us anything, it’s that stopgap measures and political rhetoric no longer suffice. It’s time to make fundamental changes to the way California is governed.

We hope you will join our campaign on Facebook and Twitter and sign the petition at If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us at [email protected].

We hope to see you Friday in L.A.!

Angels and Demonizing

Over the weekend the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco fired back against me for asking them to pay the city transfer tax the law says they owe to the City and County of San Francisco.

The Archdiocese called my decision to ask them to pay transfer taxes shameful, and the spokesperson for the Archdiocese insinuated that my decision was based on the city’s budget deficit, the Churches position on Proposition 8, or even on political considerations.

Here’s news for you folks – if I was taking on one of the world’s oldest and most powerful institutions for “political considerations,” I am not a very calculating politician.

What I am is Assessor-Recorder of San Francisco with a sworn duty to treat everyone equally under the law. And the law in this case is clear, despite this recent press offensive which is designed to muddy the waters. (edit by Brian, see the flip…)


Unless the transfer falls within an exemption, the San Francisco Transfer Tax Ordinance imposes a tax on any person or entity, including non-profit corporations, who transfer property within San Francisco. When the Archdiocese transfers legal ownership of property, it owes a transfer tax. There is no exemption from transfer tax for religious institutions transfers either under state law or the San Francisco ordinances, such exemption having been considered and rejected.

The Church citation of Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church to support their claim that they do not owe the tax is interesting from a scholarly perspective, but completely irrelevant from a legal one. We are controlled by California laws, not by church practices.

If the Church merely wanted to “re-organize,” there is a way to do so in a fashion that does not require paying the transfer tax. But its decision to legally transfer assets to newly created separate entities to give itself legal protection from lawsuits is just one of the factors showing that this is not a mere reorganization, but a legal transfer as defined under California law.

The law is the law. It remains the law in good budget times and bad. It remains the law whether you agree or disagree with the behavior or the individuals and corporations.

The representatives of the Catholic Church can demonize me all they want. I know we are on the right side of the law.

Close the Prop.13 Loophole

(I want to welcome SF Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting. In addition to being pretty good at his job, he’s also an all-around good guy. Welcome to Calitics! – promoted by Brian Leubitz)

It’s time to acknowledge that the “Third Rail” culture in Sacramento has sent California seriously off track.

Most of us know that Proposition 13 – specifically the vast corporate tax loopholes it contains – is the cause for much of California’s fiscal mess. As the elected Assessor-Recorder in San Francisco, I have a vantage point that allows me to see the tremendous inequity in a law that makes many struggling homeowners pay disproportionately more in property taxes than corporations with downtown office buildings.

Many of our leaders in Sacramento privately acknowledge the flaws in Proposition 13. A small few are brave enough to step forward and call for reform.

But too many others say that this “Third Rail” of politics needs to remain untouched, so instead they offer half solutions and political smokescreen as a substitute for real reforms. Edit by Brian for space, see the flip…

But now is the perfect time to demand our leaders stop ducking problems like Proposition 13 and start solving them. I’m currently working on a proposal to reform Prop. 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that capped the state's property tax rate and created vast loopholes and tax shelters for commercial property owners. You can read more about my proposal and about the crisis California faces in an op-ed piece I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle last week.

While proponents of Prop. 13 initially touted the protections it offered California homeowners, today, the biggest beneficiaries of Prop. 13 are large companies and corporate landowners who use tax loopholes and shelters to avoid paying their fair share of property taxes.

Prop. 13 opened up loopholes for corporate landowners so their properties are often never reassessed and their property taxes remain at artificially low levels forever. This has shifted the tax burden to the backs of individuals and first-time homeowners and has dramatically reduced California's overall tax base, forcing the draconian cuts to vital services that we see today.

Here’s a staggering example: 30 years ago in San Francisco, commercial property owners contributed 59 percent of property tax revenues while residential property owners contributed 41 percent. Today, we see a virtual flip: commercial property owners contributed just 43 percent of property taxes in 2008 while residential property owners contributed 57 percent.

The more our property tax roll is limited by Prop. 13, the more we rely on regressive taxes and fees, like sales taxes, and we find our state in a perpetual budget crisis. California is losing billions of dollars on corporate property tax loopholes.

My proposal for a split roll system would eliminate corporate tax loopholes. It would rework Prop. 13 to literally split the property tax rolls – assigning appropriate tax levels to corporations while continuing to protect homeowners.

I am organizing a grassroots, netroots community around closing the corporate property tax loopholes in Prop. 13 and creating a split roll system. You can learn more about our campaign and join our cause on our Facebook page or by signing the petition on our website at

Most politicians in Sacramento still won’t touch Prop. 13. That’s why we need to take on this issue from the grassroots and build the support necessary to require reform. I hope you will join me on Facebook and at

Phil Ting is the Assessor-Recorder of San Francisco.