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This blank check is not a good idea

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Buena Vista Park — and the rest of San Francisco’s parks — stands to benefit from additional funding allocated with the approval of Proposition B; however, the measur would reduce The City’s ability to adapt to changing needs over the next 30 years. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner/S.F. Examiner file photo)

http://sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/sally-stephens/

Everybody loves parks. In a densely packed city like San Francisco, our neighborhood parks offer places to recreate, rest and recuperate from the stresses of modern life. You may think a ballot proposition purporting to provide a steady stream of funding for parks is a no-brainer. In the case of Proposition B on Tuesday’s ballot, however, you’d be wrong.

Lacking any real checks and balances, Prop. B gives the Recreation and Park Department a huge blank check that we can only hope they use well.

Over the next 30 years, Prop. B would carve out a total of $4.5 billion of The City’s General Fund exclusively for the use of Rec and Park. No one else would be able to touch that money. Ever.

Many San Franciscans are wary of the department after a string of recent controversies — from charging people to rent a patch of grass in Dolores Park to artificial turf to the repeated use of toxic herbicides in so-called “natural areas.” The mood in our city is changing. People want specific spending priorities and rigorous, effective oversight. Unfortunately, Prop. B doesn’t deliver either.

Currently, Rec and Park gets part of its budget from the General Fund, money generated primarily by local property and other taxes. As the economy rises and falls, the taxes going into the General Fund vary, as do the budgets of city departments that depend on it.

However, San Francisco voters can chose to “set aside” General Fund money, as Prop. B does, to ensure that a department gets guaranteed amounts of money every year, no matter what happens in the economy.

Locking money away in a set-aside, however, reduces The City’s flexibility to deal not only with changing yearly needs and priorities, but also with major disasters. If the economy dips, for example, set-asides mean even less money is available for other General Fund departments, including vital services like public health, police and fire.

This loss of budget flexibility is why many people oppose set-asides on principle. In 2008, concerned about their overuse, San Francisco voters made it city policy that any new set-aside should meet three requirements: The measure creating it identifies a new source of funding to pay for it; it cannot increase by more than 2 percent annually; and it can only last 10 years.

Prop. B violates all three. It is not good governance.

There’s nothing in Prop. B to guarantee the majority of the new money will actually be used for park maintenance or rec center programming, as most people expect it to do. Instead, Prop. B gives Rec and Park management carte blanche over how the new money will be spent.

Prop. B does direct the department to develop annual plans that will then be sent to the Board of Supervisors. But here’s the catch: Supervisors cannot make any changes to them. Should they vote to “not approve” a plan, Prop. B says only that Rec and Park “may” modify it in response. “May” not “shall.” Therefore, if it wants, Rec and Park can simply ignore whatever the supervisors — and you as constituents — say. The money will continue to flow unabated.

Prop. B does call for an audit of spending once every five years. But it has few teeth. If the supervisors have concerns after an audit, the most they can do is withhold a mere 5 percent of the baseline appropriation for a year. Prop. B has the appearance of oversight without creating actual, effective oversight.

Rec and Park will still be funded without Prop. B. Only 38 percent of its budget actually comes from the General Fund. They’ll still be able to make the case — as other departments do — for that yearly allotment during the normal budget process. They just won’t have the luxury of Prop. B’s guaranteed baseline and yearly funding increases.

Giving Rec and Park a blank check worth billions without adequate checks and balances to ensure the money is spent wisely is just not smart.

Join the League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club and the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods, and politicians from Quentin Kopp to Aaron Peskin, and … Vote NO on Prop. B!

Sally Stephens is an animal, park, and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

Click here or scroll down to comment

  • Malo Halo

    Thank you for this great summary. It is what one should expect from journalists but rarely happens.

  • Not A Native

    Yes, Although there appears to be an issue of equity of Park expenditures in all parts of the City that Prop B addresses. I wonder if that’s the primary purpose of the proponents or simply a sweetener to help it pass..

  • HMM burritos

    RPD is a poorly run department that already skirts the rules. Vote NO on Prop B.

  • notadvised

    great piece…. giving a blank check with no oversight to a department already embroiled in many scandals and questionable deals makes no sense! NO on B.

  • TedEd

    Rec & Park should not get a run around budget process and scrutiny. Note No on Prop. B

  • Dwalso2013

    No on B
    How is it possible that over $200 million per year plus Bonds for hundreds of millions more dollars every few years is not enough to maintain our public parks?
    And now they want a steady stream of millions more dollars, but with no public oversight? Ridiculous.
    Fire Phil Ginsburg for mismanagement of our parks.

  • sffoghorn

    Don’t Phil Ginsburg’s crack pipe with more bond dollars. He’ll smoke it all with the swells and all he’ll share with us is privatized parks in exchange for our property tax dollars.

  • dvtsea

    This is an excellent, and swaying editorial. It’s too bad that in the SF voter guide, which will reach far more voters, the only voice in the “opposed” argument is the SF Libertarian party. -Sierra Club, Peskin, League of Women Voters, are all absent.

    Had I not seen this article, based on the ballot wording, and who is writing the for & against arguments in the voter guide, I would have voted yes. (I don’t associate the Libertarian party with good local governance. I associate them with Ron Paul and Peter Thiel)

    I’m guessing that Ginsburg’s grab will, regrettably, be a slam dunk tomorrow night.