Although the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency recently balanced its budget, another deficit is usually just around the corner. So arguments are unlikely to end regarding the SFMTA’s payments to other city departments.
About $64.9 million of its annual budget is dedicated to these so-called work orders, which include payments to the city attorney, the treasurer and tax collector, the Department of Public Works and The City’s 311 service. Most controversial is the $9 million annual subsidy of the Police Department’s motorcycle unit.
Facing a structural budget deficit stemming from costs that exceed its revenues, the SFMTA has found money in some unpopular ways — from charging for Sunday parking to reducing transit service to cut overtime costs.
But some observers believe the only way the agency can ever truly raise the money to shake off its legacy of disappointing service is by ending work-order payments. Interestingly enough, some San Francisco supervisors agree, even though that would make them responsible for funding these programs.
Technically, the SFMTA’s board of directors may unilaterally cancel work-order payments, according to Monique Zmuda of the City Controller’s Office. The bills would then be transferred to The City’s general fund, which faces a $170 million deficit.
“Every work order is a partnership, and if the SFMTA were to unilaterally cut payments, then it would put a hole in the general fund,” Zmuda said. “The only way to backfill that hole would be by reducing services, laying off employees or closing down programs.”
SFMTA Executive Director Ed Reiskin, a 2011 appointee of Mayor Ed Lee, said his agency can’t just cancel payments on its own, since work orders are a pact between two city departments. Lee spokeswoman Christine Falvey agrees, saying the agency would have to first consult with City Hall or face the possibility of having its budget rejected.
The SFMTA’s budget is subject to review by the Board of Supervisors, which can vote it up or down without making changes.
Supervisor David Campos, who has been vocal about the issue, said The City could find a way to keep funding these programs.
“It’s a false choice to say that the SFMTA has to pay for this program or it would be cut,” Campos said. “We owe it to the Muni ridership to find money for the agency.”
SFMTA Director Malcolm Heinicke said his agency should keep questioning the need for work orders. For instance, he said the agency has never received a clear explanation of the link between motorcycle officers and the SFMTA’s duty of providing transit and managing traffic. If that relationship isn’t explained, he said, the SFMTA board should reduce or eliminate its contribution to the program.
“I’m not saying the motorcycle unit doesn’t play a vital role in The City,” he said. “We just have to make sure the right funds are paying for it.”
Big share of the pie
$821M SFMTA budget for upcoming fiscal year
$64.9M Work order payments budgeted for upcoming fiscal year
8 Percent of total SFMTA budget dedicated to work orders