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Voters will see sales tax hike, funding for homeless and Muni on November ballot

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There’s little debate over whether San Francisco should invest more in Muni and homelessness, but a whole lot when it comes to how.

Voters this November are being asked to approve a sales tax hike in Proposition K, and a spending mandate for that revenue with Proposition J, which sets aside annually $100 million for transportation and $50 million for homeless services.

Strong supporters of the measures include the director of The City’s new department of homelessness Jeff Kositsky, and Ed Reiskin, head of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency that oversees Muni — the two departments poised to receive most of the funding.

Supervisor John Avalos, a progressive, is also in favor of Props. J and K, giving the measures support from both sides of the political spectrum.

“I give a lot of props to Mayor Ed Lee, who actually has made a huge effort to reinvest in our transportation system,” Avalos said. “We need a more of a multi-decade approach. Of course that’s going to take funds.” He continued, “We’ve never actually made a huge investment that’s specific towards resolving homeless like we have before us today.”

But opposition to the sales tax hike comes not only from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, but some progressive politicians as well. Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Norman Yee and Jane Kim voted against placing the sales tax on the ballot.

Peskin even submitted a paid ballot argument against the sales tax hike, arguing it is “balancing our budget on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable in our city” and that within The City’s existing $9.6 billion budget, “City Hall should address critical issues.”

In 2017, San Francisco’s sales tax would decrease from the current rate of 8.75 percent to 8.5 percent, but if Prop. K passes it would increase by .75 percent, to a total of 9.25 percent.

For Kim, her position has become the subject of sharp criticism from Supervisor Scott Wiener as the two compete this November to serve in the state Senate.

“I generally have not been supportive of flat regressive taxes,” Kim told the San Francisco Examiner during an editorial board meeting, noting she also does not support a proposed tax on sugary beverages that’s on the ballot as well. “Flat taxes disproportionately impact low income households.”

Wiener, however, expressed frustration with the Chamber’s position regarding the sales tax and argued, “The whole regressive argument is dramatically overstated,” noting that nearly half the sales tax is paid by tourists and businesses … To me this sales tax is a core civic measure.”

In opposing the measure, the Chamber argued the sales tax “places overwhelming economic strain on local businesses, especially small businesses, causing costs to rise, businesses to leave or close, and lost jobs.”

There are no active fundraising campaigns against Props. J and K.

Regarding how the revenue is spent, Kositsky of the homeless department said The City needs to invest “more in things that we know work to serve this large number of folks who are homeless in our streets.”

Of the $50 million for homeless services, some $6.5 million would go toward homeless outreach services on the street by adding mental health service personnel to the Homeless Outreach Team.

“There used something called the mobile assistance patrol and there used to be a much larger mobile crisis unit that existed in The City for people having mental health issues. As those went away sort of everything got thrown over [the] wall into the poor [homeless outreach] team’s lap,” Kositsky said.

Another $13.5 million would go toward expanding the shelter system to serve some 2,400 homeless annually. The largest amount, $30 million, would go toward new homes or temporary rent subsidies.

The money for transportation would flow into six areas, including pedestrian safety efforts; making Muni more equitable; continuation of free Muni for youth, seniors and disabled residents; capital improvements; BART and Caltrain; and road repaving.

“In the past we didn’t make these investments as many other transit agencies including BART didn’t and we are all starting to see the impacts of not making those investments,” Reiskin said. “It’s not sexy stuff. It is behind-the-scenes, but critical.”

Reiskin also noted that a better public transit system could relieve congestion on the roads.

“We get a lot of complaints about how difficult it is getting to get around The City in a car,” he added. “And there [are] more people coming to our city. For those who want or have to drive or those whose businesses are reliant on people who are driving, the best thing for them is when we can make Muni better.”

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