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S.F. needs a can – do attitude toward creating a public bank

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Two years ago, unarmed protesters of the Dakota Access oil pipeline were hit with water cannons, tear gas and other weapons in below-freezing weather. The violence at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota was a sickening display of inhumanity and greed. In response, San Franciscans — some who had personally witnessed the brutalities — called on the Board of Supervisors to divest billions in taxpayer money from big banks financing oil pipelines.

“San Francisco is not only the City that can, it’s the City that knows how and will do,” Marcus Arana, a Native American of Ohlone and Blackfeet descent, said to the supervisors.

The City’s decision to consider establishing a public bank grew in the wake of Standing Rock. Instead of investing in pipelines and supporting predatory practices, a public bank could redirect taxpayer money to local priorities, like affordable housing and small businesses.

But a can-do attitude is critical. Not only are there significant start-up costs and legal hurdles to overcome, but ensuring that taxpayer money will uphold social and environmental values is also complicated. A public bank is not a promise that San Francisco’s money will stay green. The Bank of North Dakota, the oldest of the two public banks in the United States, for example, provided financing to suppress the resisters at Standing Rock.

On Thursday, the task force convened by Treasurer Jose Cisneros will begin reviewing potential bank models. It may be the first time a city has provided actual numbers that detail a public bank’s potential costs and services. While advocates are happy with the progress, they also want to ensure taxpayer money is protected in an institution that reflects San Francisco values now and into the future.

“There’s no reason this isn’t feasible,” Treasurer’s Office spokesperson Amanda Kahn Fried told me. “The question for the Board is whether the investment is worth it. We’re going to provide enough analysis so the Board and the Mayor can make the best choice for The City.”

Establishing a public bank was a good economic choice for North Dakota. As Americans suffered through the Great Depression, the Bank of North Dakota ensured teachers received their full pay and farmers kept their land. It helped Grand Forks recover from floods in 1997. During the 2008 financial crisis, North Dakota enjoyed a budget surplus.

The Territorial Bank of American Samoa, which officially opened this year, is the only other American public bank. Although cities, such as Santa Fe, Los Angeles and Oakland, have considered a public bank, questions and concerns over costs and services have slowed progress.

But San Francisco’s Treasurer’s Office isn’t shying away from specifics. Staff released models this week that analyze the cost and timeframes associated with different services, such as managing The City’s banking and offering loans to small businesses. Members of the task force and public are invited to review these models before a report is later provided to the Board of Supervisors.

“This is not an exact science, but we are using our expertise in banking to inform models that reflect — to the extent possible — actual numbers about the costs and loan output for different bank models,” Molly Cohen, a senior policy analyst at the Treasurer’s Office, said.

Advocates have mixed emotions. Jacqueline Fielder, an organizer with the Public Bank Coalition, is happy to see the analysis, but concerned about its contents. Models could make divestment look too costly. She also wants to ensure a public bank will uphold social justice and ecological sustainability now and into the future, unlike the Bank of North Dakota.

“We’re concerned that they will underestimate the opportunity of investing in our own city and the fines and fees we pay to Wall Street banks,” Fielder told me.

The two-year anniversary of the Dakota Access pipeline protests offers an opportunity to reflect on the inspiration behind the movement. San Francisco is making commendable progress toward establishing a public bank. But there is much more to do to ensure that The City’s incredible wealth is used for good.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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