Examiner Editorial: Open invitation to steal from San Francisco

San Francisco’s long-established style of collecting its legitimately owed commercial taxes, fees, fines and penalties somewhat resembles a leaky sieve.

The Examiner too often must report the latest embarrassing examples of how easy The City makes it for scofflaws to evade their local fiscal obligations.

From unpaid tax levies to unpaid Muni rides, from misappropriated municipal property to misspent grant funding, San Francisco seems to have become a happy hunting ground for all levels of cheating.

Especially in grim times like this, as The City wrestles with a $522.2 million deficit for next fiscal year, it’s shameful how our officials lose track of so much money that should be easing the burdens of honest taxpayers.

One good place to start collecting aggressively would be San Francisco’s public parking garages, a lucrative, mostly cash business that turns out to be shockingly under-regulated.

There are more than 600 privately run garages here, but The City supposedly has only enough manpower to audit about 25 annually.

So it doesn’t seem too surprising that when our random auditors got around to examining the books of four large downtown garages operated by U.S. Parking, they discovered the company failed to pay nearly $9 million in parking taxes, of which about half was the assessment and the rest was fraud penalties and interest.

The next phases were all too predictable, with U.S. Parking going all-out to delay paying anything.

The City filed a lawsuit after sending an invoice that was ignored. The company obtained a new hearing and reduced the penalties, lowering the judgment to $6.8 million.

U.S. Parking then filed a countersuit against The City, quaintly arguing that forcing it to pay what it owed would bankrupt the company.

Meanwhile, U.S. Parking seems to have walked away from the garages.

It might be expected that new operators more trustworthy than the previous crowd would be carefully selected to take over the garages. But instead, the California Department of Transportation, owner of numerous parking facilities in San Francisco, is soliciting bids on an “emergency basis,” meaning would-be operators have just four days to submit minimum bids.

And these bidders only are required to be licensed for operating public parking, have enough cash for a hefty deposit and agree to leave enough gratis spaces for state motor pool vehicles. None of this exactly sounds like a detailed background check.

Surely there ought to be some probationary or interim method of keeping the garages open while prospective garage operators undergo serious vetting. Parking audits and record-keeping also must be strengthened without delay so The City stops getting cheated so easily.

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