San Francisco Public Works crews clean up the homeless encampment under U.S. Highway 101 at Potrero and Cesar Chavez streets Thursday, March 31, 2016. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco Public Works crews clean up the homeless encampment under U.S. Highway 101 at Potrero and Cesar Chavez streets Thursday, March 31, 2016. (Emma Chiang/Special to S.F. Examiner)

SF’s sales tax proposal furthers debate over homelessness

A proposed sales tax increase slated for San Francisco’s November ballot has landed smack in the middle of a political debate over how to best address homelessness.

Jeff Kositsky, Mayor Ed Lee’s head of the new Department of Homelessness, declined during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting to offer an opinion about Supervisor Mark Farrell’s ballot measure, which would ban homeless encampments and authorize The City to remove them within 24 hours after offering shelter to those displaced.

“One of the things that you all could do to help me is to actually not draw me into political conversations about a policy-related issue,” Kositsky said during that meeting.

But on Friday, Kositsky injected himself into the political debate after all by calling on the board to vote Tuesday to place on the ballot the .75 percent sales tax increase.

It would take eight votes of the 11-member board for the sales tax increase to make the ballot. The board is also voting on the proposed city budget Tuesday that assumes revenue from the sales tax.

Supervisor John Avalos initially supported the .75 percent sales tax measure but withdrew his support following Farrell’s decision to place the homeless encampment measure on the November ballot. Avalos has been the most vocal member of the board calling for the encampment measure’s removal in exchange for his support for the sales tax.

“I am writing to express my concern and disappointment that a critically needed sales tax is now at risk because of disagreements over unrelated ballot measures,” Kositsky wrote in a letter to the board regarding his support for the sales tax. “Let me be perfectly clear: it is in the best interest of our city to have the sales tax appear on the November ballot.”

But Avalos dug into his position Friday after reading Kositsky’s letter.

“It’s disappointing that the mayor and the president of the Board of Supervisors have not made a public statement asking Farrell to drop his ballot measure,” Avalos told the San Francisco Examiner Friday in response to Kositsky’s letter.

“I don’t believe the mayor and Farrell are serious about their approach to homelessness when they are moving this ‘matrix program’ redo to the ballot.”

The “matrix program” is a term used to describe a controversial effort under former Mayor Frank Jordan that critics said unfairly targeted the poor with an aggressive enforcement of public nuisance laws.

Avalos added, “If he cares about this issue it’s more important to have the money than to have the wedge issue.”

The revenue from the sales tax would generate about $150 million annually. The plan is to allocate $50 million to homeless services and $100 million to transportation needs.

The .75 percent sales tax hike would create a 9.25 percent sales tax rate come April 2017. San Francisco’s sales tax is currently 8.75 percent, but will decrease to 8.5 percent in October.

Kositsky said the loss of the presumed revenue in The City’s budget could result in a host of service cuts, from the loss of 250 rental subsidies for seniors and disabled at risk of becoming homeless to not being able to add 500 housing units for homeless people living on the streets.

“Failure to move forward on the sales tax could mean that over 4,000 homeless adults and children will not have access to services and housing,” Kositsky wrote. “This would be a devastating loss.”

But Avalos noted that he himself has boosted The City’s revenues through his past efforts to increase tax on the sales of properties and during lean years as chair of the board’s budget committee making cuts to departments to ensure homeless services receive more revenue.

In a city with a $9.6 billion budget, Avalos suggested there are other ways to fund the services if the sales tax isn’t raised.

Farrell has defended his measure, arguing it is the best policy to address the proliferation of homeless encampments. He refutes the allegation he only advanced the measure to have a wedge issue in a pivotal election year.

“If Supervisor Avalos and other supervisors want to vote against $1.25 billion in new revenue for homeless housing and services — that’s their choice to make,” Farrell said. “My measure has nothing whatsoever to do with the sales tax vote.”

Meanwhile, Supervisor Jane Kim has introduced legislation that would allow the board to adopt a homeless encampment clearing procedure, which would in part provide a seven-day advance notice before clearing an encampment as well as require a plan to permanently house those displaced.

“The tax increase is expected to generate nearly as much tax revenue as it costs in consumption spending — approximately $154 million by [fiscal year] 2017-18,” a recent City Controller’s economic impact report found.
Aaron PeskinBoard of SupervisorsJeff KositskyJohn AvalosPoliticsSan Francisco

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