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Free CCSF or homeless services: The City’s false choice

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Diverting money intended to cover tuition at City College of San Francisco to other needs would be bad politics and would betray voters’ trust. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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“A promise is a promise,” Supervisor Aaron Peskin said.

“We made a commitment,” Supervisor Jane Kim echoed.

Although San Francisco voters opted by a large margin — nearly 62 percent voted in favor — to make City College of San Francisco tuition free starting next year, some city officials are saying, not so fast.

The passage of Proposition W was supposed to make CCSF free by means of a tax increase on the transfer of high-end properties. Although the transfer tax is not legally bound to pay for eliminating the tuition, city lawmakers promised to do so last summer.

But now, that money might be directed instead to fund enhanced homeless services — an area that city officials and citizens agree is a primary civic priority. A little more than two-thirds of city voters said so last month when they approved Proposition J to increase funding for homeless and transportation services.

However, a considerable number of those voters who decided it was a good idea for The City to increase funding for homelessness and transit issues did not see fit to activate the sales tax increase, Proposition K, that was supposed to produce the tens of millions of dollars to pay for it.

Specifically, 120,413 more people voted to spend the money than voted to raise the money, an almost a 2-1 margin. This has seemed to cause consternation in City Hall. A Board of Supervisors committee met last week to discuss ways to honor the voters’ call for more homeless service spending without the extra funds to pay for it.

Mayor Ed Lee’s budget director, Melissa Whitehouse, said, “The homeless spending is where he is really concerned.”

Supervisor Kim, who sponsored the free CCSF measure, took exception to the notion that funding allocations should be up for discussion. “We made a commitment … that we would make City College free if the real estate transfer tax passed – not if the sales tax and the real estate transfer tax passed.”

But Supervisor Mark Farrell, who sponsored the successful Proposition Q to clear sidewalks of homeless encampments, said such a discussion on the matter was prudent, adding, “I don’t know [whether] San Francisco voters and taxpayers want to pay for people to go to City College or pay for homeless services and get people off the street.”

The truth is they want both.

While this may be a problem — without the added funding, thousands of people who sleep on the streets and in shelters will lose out on the access to additional services — it’s not really a dilemma.

Maybe supervisors’ fingers were crossed when they passed the funding resolution for CCSF earlier this year, but diverting this money to other needs now and keeping the school’s tuition intact would be bad politics and would betray voters’ trust.

Homeless advocates have said that it was gratifying to see voters affirm their desire for enhanced homeless services, and while that’s true, the reality is voters didn’t care enough to actually commit money to the cause. If money can be found through other means to fund these dire needs then by all means, it should be put to work to fulfill the worthy aims of Prop. J. But it can’t be at the expense of other voter-approved expenditures.

City officials should not be able to pick and choose among voter mandates as it suits them.

Voters gave a garbled message on how to move forward on homeless and transit services last month, one that perhaps indicates an ambivalence about the public’s commitment to addressing such issues. In contrast, voters’ call to make CCSF free — as well as their approval of measures to care for street trees and taxing soda to enhance health programs — was resounding and clear.

Like it or not, City Hall should respect that.

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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