Editorial: City Hall’s $600 million secret

The release last week of a 10-year, $15.7 billion public works plan to repair The City’s infrastructure was not the kind of event that grabs headlines or captivates the public. But the new City Hall report is important, because it reveals in its 100-plus pages a dirty little civic secret.

It was long past time that The City issued a multiyear report that seeks to address, in a comprehensive way, our rapidly crumbling government buildings, public playgrounds, water and sewer systems and other decidedly unsexy but nonetheless crucial civic properties.

San Francisco has not issued such a report since 1991, and has long relied on yearly scrambles for funding or property tax increases to temporarily patch over the latest crisis. The new capital plan lays out priorities and funding sources for everything from the renovation of grand civic buildingsto the filling of potholes.

As the report makes clear, however, The City has a fundamental fiscal problem. Even with an increase in city funding for key public works projects and a long slate of expensive new bond measures, San Francisco will still have a deferred maintenance backlog of more than $600 million, mainly for roads and aging buildings.

The report euphemistically attributes the massive shortfall to a “lack of dedicated funds” over the years. That’s bureaucrat-speak for a lack of political will, as our elected officials have been all too quick to spend any temporary windfalls but, with few exceptions, unwilling to set money aside for our infrastructure.

It is clear that despite repeated ballot measures promoted as addressing our civic infrastructure needs, there is no plan in place at City Hall to address basic civic maintenance other than to keep coming back to the voters and property owners.

As an example, witness the $110 million bond measure, funded by property tax increases, that city voters approved to fix parks in 2001. The money ran out even though many approved park improvement projects were not completed, and the new capital plan proposes a new $150 million park bond measure in 2008.

The larger debate that is needed is how The City intends to pay for its huge needs, once every last drop has been wrung out of homeowners via tax hikes. How bad a shape will our parks and buildings and sewers be in 10 years? City Hall officials must take a serious look at how to control costs — including public employee pensions and benefits, which are growing at a sharp rate in San Francisco — in order to bring the budget back into long-term balance.

We commend city officials for putting together the 10-year capital plan. It’s a solid first step in getting a grasp on our long-range funding goals. Now that we’ve decided what to spend money on, a vigorous debate is needed to produce a fiscal plan that doesn’t involve raising taxes to make up for our politicians’ bad planning.

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