Jeff Adachi: Tackling a budgetary problem no other city official will touch

Ken Garcia’s Friday column, “Saying one thing, doing another,” accuses me of “runaway government spending” and states that the Public Defender’s Office is “eating up a disproportionate share of San Francisco’s budget.”

But, in fact, I have spent the past two years warning both the mayor and the Board of Supervisors that cutting the public defender’s budget would result in increased costs to taxpayers. My warnings were not heeded, and when the mayor cut the Public Defender’s Office staff by $2 million in 2009, I had no choice but to begin refusing cases. As public defender, I am ethically required to refuse to take additional cases when attorneys’ workloads exceed what they can handle.

Garcia’s contention that our attorneys’ caseloads are “lower than a limbo stick” is simply wrong. Had he bothered to research this issue, he would have learned that caseload audits conducted by the city controller during the past two years found that San Francisco public defenders presently carry caseloads 45 to 66 percent more than the maximum standards set by the American Bar Association.

The controller’s study said our public defenders work 50 to 70 hours a week and do not earn overtime. This proves the workloads handled by my staff are much higher than the allowable standard, and it explains why I was forced to refer cases to private attorneys when our staffing was cut.

As I predicted, using private attorneys who charge by the hour increased The City’s costs substantially. Although the Board of Supervisors responded one year later by restoring some of the office’s staffing in exchange for our agreement to no longer send cases to private attorneys, the damage was done and these additional costs were already incurred.

Garcia questioned my motives as a private citizen in seeking to reform our city’s escalating pension and health care costs by organizing the petition drive that successfully put Proposition B on the November ballot. Had he asked me, I would have told him that I did this to ensure that the $829 million annual cost of city employee pensions and benefits and the $4 billion of unfunded health care costs don’t bankrupt our city.

As a San Franciscan who cares deeply about the quality of life here, I decided to do something about a problem that needed to be fixed. I drafted a law that requires all city employees, including elected officials, to contribute toward their own pensions and benefits, and secured 49,000 signatures from San Francisco voters to put Prop. B on the ballot.

Prop. B will save taxpayers $600 million over the next five years, freeing up funding for critical services that are now being devastated by budget cuts. Prop. B will make sure that the city employees’ pension and health care systems are sustainable in the years ahead.

In my view, doing something about a problem that no other elected official would dare touch is just the opposite of “saying one thing and doing another.” It’s about doing something that needs to be done — not just for the benefit of city workers, but for all San Franciscans.

Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco public defender.

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